10/10 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an acerbic, heartfelt masterpiece from a playwright who seems like he can’t stop producing them.
Eight months before the film’s start, Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) is immolated and raped. Tired of hearing nothing on the case, her mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) rents out three billboards on an unused road describing the crime and singling out sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for having not produced even an arrest. Willoughby, for his part, had done his best with a stone-cold crime — there were no witnesses or DNA matches to go on. Willoughby is a broadly respected figure in the town of Ebbing, and Mildred Hayes faces social, legal and violent backlash from every angle, especially officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is writer/director/producer Martin McDonagh’s third film after In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, two films I absolutely adore. Three Billboards follows closely in their footsteps — it’s a tersely written black comedy with an incredible soundtrack that manages to be funny and sad at many of the same moments, and in surprising enough ways that everything lands.
Weak or barely there women characters are a point of criticism in McDonagh’s work, so he’s come back with Mildred Hayes, a vulgar old crone who seeks out and actively violates social boundaries. It’s a role that’s made McDormand a frontrunner for another Oscar and become the character of the moment in a post-Weinstein Hollywood. In a world reeling from the idea that women would merely speak out, Hayes declares the crime in 20-foot-high block font for all to see and specifically blames law enforcement for not acting. In an early scene, she explicitly makes herself the stand-in for every woman on the wrong end of a he-said she-said encounter — “Except this time, the chick ain’t losing.”
But no matter how much she rails, Hayes’ anger is impotent. Her daughter will never be un-raped, and as far as Dixon is concerned, Willoughby’s name will never be unsullied.
Despite frequent outbursts of violence both verbal and physical, Three Billboards is primarily about the pain that’s held back. Hayes attacks almost everyone she comes into contact with in the movie, but blames herself for her daughter’s death and her aggression clearly comes from a place of guilt. Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a subject of controversy in the town after being accused of torturing a black resident while in custody, is driven to violence to make up for his inadequacies as a police officer. The character through which this is most clear is Robbie Hayes (Lucas Hedges), Mildred’s son and Angela’s younger brother, who faces harassment at school for his mother’s actions while simultaneously being forced to confront what happened to his sister.
And so this tiny Missouri town aggressively grieves. It’s a joy to watch.
Structurally, the film is completely bizarre. It isn’t one full story — it’s about the last two thirds of a story about Hayes cut together with the first about two thirds of a second story about Dixon. Lacking a solid beginning or end, the film is awkward to watch, but expertly illustrates its own subject matter through its narrative.
The key to understanding what Three Billboards is going for may be in the song “His Master’s Voice,” which plays over the climax, itself awkwardly placed around the film’s midpoint. The song tells the story of a soldier who goes to war and dies on the advice of a pastor, but cannot hear his true master — God, his mother, his own heart, that part’s kind of vague — calling him back. In the context of the spectacularly violent scene in question, the implication is clear.
This is a movie that’s going to be a big player during awards season — it already brought the Toronto International Film Festival audience award with it to theaters — and has expanded up to 1,620 screens as word of mouth builds. See it as soon as you can.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.