In his acclaimed debut In Bruges and follow-up Seven Psychopaths, writer/director/playwright Martin McDonagh showcased a penchant for bleak humour and even bleaker drama. The jarring tonal shifts in his screenplays — from hilarious, acrid dialogue to stabs at a sort of existential poignancy — neatly co-existed in his first feature and clashed in his second. With Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh returns to the balance of In Bruges, though paradoxically this is achieved through characters and a setting defined by their division.
The setting is the titular town of Ebbing, Missouri, and while the city is fictional, McDonagh establishes a background that taps into the tensions and conflicts permeating present-day America (McDonagh’s choice to set his film in the same state as Ferguson cannot be mere coincidence). The local police exercise their power over Ebbing in the manner of the blunt weapon they carry; their bigotry — townspeople speak casually about their abuse and targeting of African-Americans — is about as subtle as a smack to the temple. There’s a low-lying tension to every exchange with police, with the implication that the wrong move, the wrong word, or, more simply, the wrong skin colour, can lead to aggression at a moment’s notice. Nobody in Ebbing can relax, and because of this any sense of community is impossible.
Enter Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a grieving single mother whose daughter was raped and murdered. It’s been several months since her daughter’s death, and the police show no interest in finding the killer (“It seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folks,” she says at one point). With no signs of progress in her daughter’s case, Mildred puts up her own signs, renting three billboards targeting police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). “Raped while dying” one billboard says, followed by “Still no arrests?” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”
And so the scene is set: a battle between a grieving mother and a sheriff whose ignorance fuels his arrogance. But McDonagh has no interest in reductive, good against evil mentalities: he purposefully introduces his characters by putting them into boxes, before gradually revealing facets of their personalities that sit outside of these initial classifications. The stubborn, profane Mildred we meet at the film’s beginning becomes more considerate and vulnerable as she faces the unintended consequences from her protest; Willoughby’s haughtiness gives way to a portrait of a family man reckoning with a terminal cancer diagnosis. McDonagh first presents these characters the way they wish to be seen, then hones in on their true feelings and, in doing so, makes them more human. These are people performing for each other, digging in their heels in order to convince everyone around them that their fragile surface is actually a hardened one. And as much as they may hate each other or consider themselves to be sworn enemies, this emotional struggle they all face forms a begrudging bridge between these seemingly opposite sides.
With these richly drawn out characters, the main cast deliver some of their strongest screen performances to date. As Mildred, McDormand relishes every opportunity to verbally excoriate anyone standing in her way, but shows a grief-stricken woman underneath her tough exterior, filled with complicated emotions over her daughter’s death. She’s a woman standing defiantly, and McDormand makes sure we see the nerve it takes to stick to her principles. But it’s Sam Rockwell who winds up with the most surprisingly effective role as Officer Dixon, a cop and all-around loser whose primary method of communication is racially motivated violence. Rockwell embraces the repulsive aspects of his character, and then brings out the sad, broken qualities hiding underneath the hatred. What starts out as one of the only single-minded characters in a film full of multi-faceted ones becomes the thematic core. It’s a ploy that McDonagh and Rockwell pull off with aplomb.
When the film closes with McDormand and Rockwell — perhaps the two most disparate characters in the film — sharing a quiet moment of commonality between them, McDonagh shows an optimism that solidifies Three Billboards… as his best work yet. The pathos and tragedy of his previous works now flow organically through his characters, and it makes the humour hit even harder. This is a film about division, the forces that cause it, and the glimmer of hope that can free people from their self-imposed prison of stubbornness and rage. For McDonagh, the way forward is for people to spend less time racing for moral superiority and more time finding a common moral ground between each other, no matter how grey that area may be.