It’s no coincidence that a character is seen reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find in an early scene inThree Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri. Both share the same darkly tragic sense of humor, a rural setting, and a cast of grotesque, hard-to-love characters. But beyond that, they both demonstrate a willingness to look unflinchingly at the ugliest corners of the human heart—and refuse to pass any simple judgements.
In director/writer Martin McDonagh’s latest film (previously most well-known for Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges), he tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Francis McDormand), the grieving mother of a teenage daughter who was raped and murdered seven months ago. Frustrated by the lack of progress from the local police, she rents three abandoned billboards and commissions the following message to be posted: “Raped while dying …and still no arrests… How come, Chief Willoughby?” Though her indignation is understandable, her methods are not, and the locals are angered by what they view as an unfair accusation of their beloved police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who’s rumored to be dying of cancer.
But Mildred’s intention is to get attention, that is, to remind the town that her daughter’s murderer is still on the loose, while the cops occupy their time with what she views as petty racism. What follows is a series of escalating responses and reactions involving everyone from a bigoted cop, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), to her ex-husband (John Hawkes), to the advertising clerk (Caleb Landry Jones) who rented her the billboards.
Before his career as a film director/screenwriter, McDonagh was known as one of the most important modern Irish playwrights, and the strength of his background in theater shows. His dialogue is some of the most searing and subversive I’ve heard on screen in a long time; these aren’t the “Motherfuckers!” shouted out of frustration, or the “Cocksuckers!” uttered in displays of machismo. His characters spit vitriol and they mean it, too. The hatred palpable in the words they aim at each other may be hard to hear at times, but it packs a punch than hits harder than the blows of most fists. Instead of merely causing shock and offense, it actually makes us wonder what could’ve happened to make people hurt—and want to cause hurt—this badly. No subject is off limits when it comes to what these characters will use to wound each other (or make each other laugh)—neither physical shortcomings, nor parental failure, nor poverty, suicide, cowardice, or racism, and the result is that our capacity to feel sympathy is challenged at every turn.
McDormand, as Mildred, invests not a single second of her performance trying to be likable, and the effect is something more important than relatability—reality. Yes, she’s been pushed to the edge by grief, but she was no warm wife or mother before tragedy struck either. Flashbacks show abusive brawls between her and her ex-husband Charley, screaming arguments with her teenage daughter Angela (in which “Cunt!” is used seriously, and then laughed at), and drunken neglect of her timid teenage son (the recently ubiquitous Lucas Hedges). Her uniform is a shaggy undercut and a mechanic’s jumpsuit, which she wears like combat gear, stalking around town as a woman whose sole mission is to blame and antagonize. But McDonagh wisely shows us moments of the desperation behind her actions; yes, Mildred hates and blames everyone, but she hates and blames herself too, which is why we want to hug her as much as hit her (though no one would dare try either).
Though McDormand’s performance is strong enough to carry the film, she doesn’t need to, because everyone else is unequivocally excellent. Woody Harrelson plays the lovable good ol’ boy we all know him to be, but with a practical resignation that results in devastating consequences for his family. Lucas Hedges, who showed up on everyone’s radar after last year’s Manchester By The Sea, plays Mildred’s son Robbie with a quiet pathos that’s all the more effective for its subtlety. Kathryn Newton (Big Little Lies), seen only briefly in flashbacks as Mildred’s now-deceased daughter, exhibits such a display of teenage cruelty and selfishness that it’s understandable why her mother might have hated her in that moment. Peter Dinklage, playing an observant town drunk with a crush on Mildred, makes us altogether forget Tyrion Lannister, and is given some of the funniest lines in the film.
Another one to watch is Landry-Jones as Red, a young business owner with a soft-spot for Mildred’s mission and a bravado he can’t quite back up, who breaks our hearts with a tiny act of undeserved mercy. John Hawkes is both terrifying and rational as Mildred’s ex, and Samara Weaving is hilarious as his nineteen year-old girlfriend. And Abbie Cornish, Clarke Peters, and Sandy Martin make the most of their relatively small roles as Willoughby’s wife, the new police chief, and Dixon’s mama, respectively.
But perhaps even more than McDormand, the performance we’ll all be talking about come awards season is Sam Rockwell’s. As police Officer Dixon, he’s a stupid, racist, homophobic, alcoholic, misogynistic mama’s boy, with little to offer anyone except laughter at his expense. I spent much of the film flinching in anticipation of some unredeemable act of cruelty or idiocy on his part. But it never comes, and not because Dixon doesn’t behave both cruelly and idiotically throughout. Rather it’s because McDonagh seems to posit that the most cruel and idiotic act of all would be to write someone off as unredeemable.
Depending on the circles you run in, public accusation of any one of these adjectives (racist, sexist, homophobic, ignorant) seems to result in one of two opposite reactions: an eternal blacklisting, or a willfully blithe dismissal. Which is why McDonagh’s treatment of this character (and Rockwell’s portrayal), feels so nuanced and radical—it’s a call to hate the sin, love the sinner; to unapologetically hold people accountable for their behavior while simultaneously hoping for their transformation. Rockwell never for a moment implies that Dixon’s whiffs of redemption excuse any of his beliefs or behavior; instead, he lets us revel in the paradox that people we’ve labeled as “bad” can still do hard, good things.
Though McDonagh dishes up an almost unbearable amount of hurt and bitterness, he resists advocating nihilism or indifference as a possible course of action. There are just enough tiny acts of kindness to keep us watching—a shared glass of orange juice, or a letter of forgiveness. It’s not that he claims these smalls things can undo a load of hurt, but simply that we’re not allowed to dismiss them. That they’re small and few doesn’t keep them from being gravely important.
In spite of all of these accolades, Three Billboards isn’t a perfect film. It’s pacing is uneven, and quieter scenes meant to depict contemplation falter without McDonagh’s dialogue. (In particular, a scene where Mildred encounters a deer feels sentimental and heavy-handed.) Though McDonagh is a master of character development, he hasn’t totally learned how to let an image work for him; it’s as if he doesn’t quite trust the storytelling potential of certain artistic techniques that are unique to film (like the power of a well-framed close-up, or the emotional impact of certain camera movements). And though most of the songs chosen work (including recordings by Joan Baez and Townes Van Zandt), the score itself (written by Carter Burwell) feels more like it was written for a melodramatic sports tale than for a film of this tone and caliber.
But Three Billboards surprised me when I did not expect to be surprised; it’s morally complicated in the truest sense of the term, which means that at the end of the film neither me nor the characters knew for sure what we were supposed to do, only that we should clumsily try to do something. Flannery O’Connor, the great southern author who McDonagh un-coincidentally references, once claimed, “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.”