Don’t be so quick to dismiss a form of advertising you might lump alongside the Yellow Pages and newspaper classifieds, because Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri knows how to attract attention.
This exhilarating mix of biting dark comedy and taut crime drama from British filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) showcases some terrific performances and a sharp-tongued script packed with incisive sociopolitical subtext.
“Raped While Dying. And Still No Arrests? How Come, Chief Willoughby?” That’s the message plastered across three dilapidated billboards along a rural road by Mildred (Frances McDormand), whose daughter was murdered seven months ago.
She blames the terminally ill police chief (Woody Harrelson) for a lack of progress in the case, and takes out her frustration on a dimwitted and ethically challenged deputy (Sam Rockwell) who becomes the first of many to confront her about the messaging.
While others come out of the woodwork, mostly to voice their displeasure with Mildred, we meet others affected by the scheme, including her exasperated teenage son (Lucas Hedges), the advertising agent (Caleb Landry Jones) who sold her the space, and an ex-husband (John Hawkes) who’s now dating a young bimbo.
Although the titular locale is fictional, its Midwestern anonymity could resonate with small towns across America, where a controversial act of defiance divides the citizenry with cries of inequality or moral outrage.
McDonagh’s crackling, multilayered screenplay weaves a compelling mystery around Mildred’s plight while also prompting discussions, subtle or not, about racial profiling and organized religion. In fact, one highlight comes when Mildred lambastes a Catholic priest for denouncing the billboards, claiming he has no moral authority concerning crimes against children.
Mildred is motivated by a desire for both closure and vengeance, and the film provides a fascinating probe into revenge psychology and other moral complexities while acknowledging the desperate and humorous absurdity in her quest.
Three Billboards will likely draw comparisons to the work of the Coen brothers, especially with the presence of McDormand, who masterfully embodies a fearless balance of sorrow, remorse, anger, and determination in a galvanizing performance.
However, the film brings together more than a dozen richly textured characters with shifting loyalties and a penchant for violence who might likewise divide moviegoers. With its clever twists and ambiguous ending, it also refuses to pass judgment, either on Mildred or the audience.