Signs of greatness
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri marks three films—and three masterpieces—for writer-director Martin McDonagh.
It also marks another astonishing film achievement for Frances McDormand, who will bore into your chest cavity and do all kinds of crazy shit to your heart as Mildred, a justifiably pissed off mother who has a few issues with the cops in her town.
It’s been five years since Mildred’s young daughter was raped and killed by unknown murderers, who finished their awful deed by burning her body. Mildred, who isn’t even close to getting over the tragedy, spies some old, dilapidated billboards on the way home and gets an idea. One meeting with a sloppy advertising agent (Caleb Landry Jones) later, and some guys are commissioned to put some alarmingly provocative signs up on those billboards.
Those signs call out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a well-meaning but emotional man who, for various reasons, is not on his best game at the moment. He challenges Mildred, claiming the billboards aren’t fair. Her retort: In the time you took to come down here and piss and moan about these billboards, another girl could’ve been butchered.
Mildred isn’t very sympathetic these days, and there’s no better actress to portray her steadfast, emotionally raw determination than McDormand. Over two decades ago, McDormand took home the Oscar for playing Marge Gunderson in Fargo, probably one of the nicest law enforcement individuals the movies have ever seen. Mildred is the opposite of Marge; kindness and hugs and Arby’s aren’t big on her mind. She wants her daughter’s killers brought to justice, and she’ll burn buildings down with people inside them to get the investigation going.
Yet, somehow, Mildred is just as likeable and worth rooting for as Marge. That’s because McDormand is a fearless master, and a shoo-in for another Oscar nomination at the least. Mildred says and does things in this movie that will leave your jaw hanging open, and McDormand makes all of these extremes believable. There’s so much happening behind her piercing eyes. It’s the kind of performance that only comes around once a decade.
What takes this film to masterpiece levels, besides the technical brilliance that McDonagh always delivers, is that McDormand is joined by a cast that hits every note. Harrelson caps a great year as the lawman who might be nicer than you think. John Hawkes is memorably nasty as Mildred’s abusive ex-husband, while Jones manages many surprises as the billboard man, and Peter Dinklage makes the most of a few scenes as a town local with eyes for Mildred.
Oh, and there’s the matter of yet another Oscar-caliber performance from Sam Rockwell—who starred in Seven Psychopaths—as racist, momma’s boy deputy Dixon. There aren’t too many character actors alive who could make Dixon frightening, sympathetic, funny, disgusting and, somehow, hopeful and worthy of redemption all at once. Rockwell’s Dixon, the town drunk and racist homophobe who has a thing for throwing people out of windows, undergoes a transformation that is a kind of movie miracle. Rockwell, like McDormand, is one of the best.
That’s also because McDonagh knows how to write a script that keeps you in it for every line. While the film is somewhat a murder mystery, the solving of the crime takes a back seat to watching these folks play off each other. There are scenes in this movie that will knock you on the floor. There’s one particular moment that is so heartbreaking, so shocking, it’s a wonder anybody managed to get it on screen.
The year isn’t over yet, but it’s a fair bet to say this one is going to be topping a lot of lists. As for McDonagh, not many directors have come out of the gate with three masterpieces in a row. He’s in an elite class of filmmakers, and he’s just getting started.