Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017) – A year after her daughter’s murder goes unsolved, Mildred Hayes takes it upon herself to challenge the local authorities.
Dark and funny as with McDonagh’s usual brand of wit, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri takes an incisive and thoughtful look into the complexities of humanity.
There are no clear-cut protagonists in Martin McDonagh’s works. From In Bruges to Seven Psychopaths, the writer-director takes interest most in morally grey characters, whose values are often corrupt either by upbringing or circumstance. Similarly, amorality and righteousness are indefinite in his latest masterwork, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
The story centres on Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a woman who demands sole responsibility out of police chief Bill Wiloughby (Woody Harrelson) for her daughter’s unsolved murder. Her commissioning of the damning billboards is driven by a want for justice and more so by wrath, however misplaced.
The characters are fascinating. In her dogged prosecution of the cancer-stricken Wiloughby, it is easy to dismiss Mildred as an unsympathetic and almost cruel woman. It is easier still to hate Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an irredeemable cop who repeatedly escapes consequences for his acts of police brutality and unconcealed racism.
In one striking scene, Dixon throws a man out the window and crosses the street back to the police station, receiving no repercussions. Passers-by folded their arms as they watched all happen. Sergeant Cedric (Zeljko Ivanek) is equally complicit, condoning Dixon’s crimes through no more than a side-eye and silence. Then, more blatantly, there is Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), who abuses his wife right before his son.
These folks make for an uncomfortable watch, their actions – or lack thereof – bound to anger. It would doubtlessly be infuriating, if men like Dixon and Charlie do not get their comeuppance. But reality does not always grant happy endings, as Three Billboards assuredly shows. Sometimes, there are no neat resolutions, no stories tied with a perfect knot.
Martin McDonagh’s bold reflection of how complex the real world truly is, is what makes him one of the most tremendous screenwriters of our times. Be it in his plays or movies, his imperfect leads can be entirely vile in their misdeeds, from callous insults to even child murder. He never shies away from their evils or tragedies. Instead, he takes them head on and explores what makes them tick.
His exceptional character study examines their past and psyches, bringing out the subtle intricacies of humanity. We see Dixon raised by a conservative mother, who inculcated his reprehensible values. Mildred is driven by guilt over her last words to her late daughter, her hate compounded by an abusive husband. Her own indefensible conduct shows, as she unkindly makes use of James (Peter Dinklage) to get what she wants.
The portrayals are brilliant all-around, and the Western-influenced score by Carter Burwell, genuinely moving. The story remains an impassioned affair, even when infused with McDonagh’s signature un-PC humour. These elements come together to capture the soft melancholy of every little revelation, as we intrude into the characters’ hearts and discover what had brought them to this point.
There is no way that any of which justifies, or absolves them of their wrongdoings. But Three Billboards Outside Missouri is unafraid to figure out their dispositions, even if they can be erroneous and injudicious. In its layered characterisation, the empathetic dramedy effectually invites deep thought into what makes us who we are, who we can unknowingly become, and how we can change – for better or worse.