Frances McDormand and Martin McDonagh offer career-best work in this profoundly moving film.
On Sunday afternoon, it was announced that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (to be referred to as Three Billboards) has won the People’s Choice Award. My peers and I were shocked. Not because Three Billboards is an unworthy winner – it is perhaps the most worthy TIFF award winner in many years – but instead due to the film’s subject matter. The most recent award winners include La La Land, Room, The Imitation Game, 12 Years a Slave and Silver Linings Playbook. These films share optimism, found either in their – often unrealistically – happy endings or feel-good subject matter. Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards is not an optimistic film. It does not send audience members out of the cinema with a smile on their face, nor a convenient pat on the back for enduring hardship linked to awards-friendly issues. Rather, Three Billboards is a heavy, realistic, dark comedy that does not pander to audience hopes and expectations. Anchored by an astounding lead performance from Frances McDormand, the film enraptures viewers in its mystery, before slapping them in the face with the honest truth.
Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is mad as hell, and she’s not going to take it anymore. Seven months ago, her daughter was raped and murdered. The DNA found on the body does not match that of any prior offenders in the system. Thus, the search for Angela Hayes’ murderer is put on the back burner. While the police may have moved on, Mildred Hayes has not. Rather than processing the trauma, Mildred’s anger grows, extending from the murderer to the police who have failed to find or identify a suspect. On her drive home, Mildred sees an opportunity: three blank billboards. She immediately locates their owner and rents them so that she can make her statement loud and clear. The next day, split across the three billboards, black text on a red background reads, “RAPED WHILE DYING…STILL NO ARRESTS?…HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” These billboards send shockwaves through the town of Ebbing, specifically within the police department of the mentioned Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his deputy Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
McDonagh is no stranger to dark subject matter. His previous films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths were celebrated for witty dialogue and biting use of dark comedy. With Three Billboards, McDonagh tackles what is perhaps his heaviest plot yet with finesse and maturity. Maturity aside, McDonagh nevertheless sprinkles his screenplay with rare usages of the word “retard” as well as a continued referral to Peter Dinklage’s James as being a “midget”. These utterances are surrounded abundant “fucks” and the reasonably placed “cunts”. McDonagh’s language is offensive – it always has been – but it does more than shock. The people onscreen who throw around the word “retard” like it is their everyday vernacular are the same citizens who find a woman seeking justice at fault. For the people of Ebbing, Missouri, harbor more anger towards Mildred than fear of the fact that a murderer/rapist may be lurking among them. Perhaps this fear does exist. Maybe the citizens of Ebbing find it easier to channel their fear of danger as a hate for Mildred. These are questions quietly raised yet expertly unanswered by the film.
Actors Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell beautifully realize the tense screenplay. After seeing McDormand in this role it is nearly impossible to imagine any other actor in her place. Nevertheless, she is routinely excellent and selective in her choices of films. Rockwell, on the other hand, is an actor who is greatly underappreciated. His roles in films like Moon and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind show that he has the acting chops to hold his own against a powerful actress like McDormand, and he does just that. Some of the film’s most affecting moments come when McDormand and Rockwell share the screen alone. While Mildred and Dixon have made enemies of one another, there is shared anger – albeit aimed at different targets – between the two, that ultimately thrusts them together. This relationship ultimately builds to an absolutely brilliant final scene, sure to be one decade’s greatest finales.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a profound piece of art from two masters. The pairing of McDonagh and McDormand is of the rare symbiotic kind in which two artists have a deep understanding and appreciation of their form. Rough around the edges, a little offensive, and funny as hell, Three Billboards is the must-see film of the year, sure to live on to awards season glory and beyond.