Let’s talk something uncontroversial: the police
Now that we’re in full swing for awards season, all the interesting nuggets are beginning to pop out and vying for everyone’s attention as before they get swept up by the big Disney release (which you should absolutely see as well). I’ve had my eye on Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (what a mouthful) for a while, on account the director, Martin McDonagh, has consistently delivered intriguing dark comedic hits that do everything people tell me the Coen Brothers do right…except I actually like his work most of the time. Both In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are rich with incredible dialogue and disturbing people doing messed up things, while also featuring a stellar cast directed fantastically by the British-Irish former playwright. Bringing multiple thespians from his last film, how does McDonagh do in his second American production? “Surprisingly well” doesn’t even begin to describe the work.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is the bereaved and exasperated mother of a girl who was raped and murdered in Ebbing, Missouri a few months prior to when the film started. Frustrated by the lack of headway made by the police in the intervening months, and the fact several members of the force (including Sam Rockwell’s Officer Jason Dixon) have been accused of harassing and violently beating African-American members of the town, Mildred rents out three billboards near the town to send a message. Lambasting the kind, but troubled, Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for the lack of progress in investigating her daughter’s case, Mildred attracts unfavorable attention from many of the town’s residents for her billboards. With emotions high, all hell breaks loose not long after the billboards go up.
I can’t stress enough just how damn great this script courtesy of McDonagh is. Strung together with wonderful chains of pure profanity and insults, each character in Three Billboards (screw typing out this full name) becomes a fully realized and multi-dimensional person. You may find yourself hating some characters like Officer Dixon in the beginning, but as the film goes on and layers are peeled back, you discover that he’s less a caricature and more of a person who has routinely failed to become a better man despite his potential. Same goes for the character of Chief Willoughby who is by far the most sympathetic person of the entire set. And while you initially find yourself sympathizing with McDormand’s character, you do start to ask yourself if she’s taking her crusade too far and you also wind up second guessing whether she’s really doing the right thing.
That’s what I love most about the film: the moral ambiguity is pitch perfect in this dark as hell comedy. McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell play characters who have been brought to their breaking point for one reason or another, and the actions of one character have forced them to confront one another for each of their sins. Sympathy points are simply not an option for any of these three characters, so they instead choose to escalate matters until the situation worsens for everyone in general. At times it’s uncomfortable as hell to watch, but the cringe is alleviated by some of the best damn insults I’ve heard since Shane Black’s last turn as screenwriter. The film’s pacing never once drops despite the lack of on screen action by sheer force of venom delivered by these various characters.
While the script alone would make for an easy recommendation; without great performances, we would only have before us a pipe dream of wasted potential. Which is where seasoned vets like McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell come in to absolutely own this film and make it the stellar cinematic experience that it is. McDormand is easily now on my shortlist for best lead performance of the year, and I’m hoping and praying she gets scores her fifth Academy Award nomination. Hell, if I don’t see another stirring performance this year, then she should win her second Oscar after she claimed her first in Fargo over two decades ago.
Woody Harrelson, meanwhile, continues his wonderful streak of solid performances as poor Chief Willoughby. Despite sporting a foul mouth, he has a far stronger temperament than many of the town’s residents and even his own police force when it comes to dealing with Mildred Hayes. While he doesn’t appreciate the insults from the character, he’s reluctant to even condemn Hayes for her actions. To the point, he’s even frustrated enough to at least attempt to revisit the case with Hayes’ daughter and tries to piece together what else he could learn. Of course, he’s also dealing with another personal matter affecting his job, and it’s a harrowing journey to see Harrelson impart as much humanity as he can into this character to make you feel as sorry as possible for him.
Rockwell is another actor who shines in this. Bringing his trademark douche nature to the role, he depicts someone very easy to hate initially. Hell, I confess that some of his character’s actions made me wish for the character’s brutal demise. However, we do get McDonagh isn’t content with just showing you the prototypical example of the inept cop that is also too racist to hold a position of power. He and Rockwell also humanize the character enough that, while you may not sympathize with him, you will end up pitying him for being such a wretch of a creature.
But he’s also the poster boy for the town’s own hidden nastiness. Despite giving off a “good ol’ boy” exterior, these townsfolk do some heinous shit throughout the entire film against Hayes and even her son (Lucas Hedges). But the film isn’t one to force our protagonists to turn the other cheek. No, when someone has wronged them, they retaliate. When they do, the situation grows to the point of no return and things very quickly spiral out of control for our main characters. It’s an intense experience to watch, and there were few films that captivated my attention the way Three Billboards did.
Flanked by a solid support cast of Peter Dinklage and Abbie Cornish to name a few, the film delivers one of the mostly smartly written scripts about the frustration of police investigations and officers own terrible actions against their own community. The Academy Awards tend to shy away from dirty talks about complex issues facing America today, but I do hope the stellar performances attract voters to Three Billboards to pay it attention regardless. Thoroughly enjoyed this film right up to it’s ballsey climax, that I’m giving this a very strong…