Whenever award-winning playwright Martin McDonagh switches from the stage to the screen as writer and director, he usually mixes crime drama with comedy. His first feature, In Bruges, has two hitmen laying low in the titular Belgium city after a hit in London goes very wrong. It drifts into the absurdist realm by mixing in dwarfs and a movie getting made. His next film, Seven Psychopaths, revolved around a screenwriter who gets mixed up in the Los Angeles underworld when a friend of his kidnaps a gangster’s shih tzu. With his new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri he still mixes comedy with drama, but it comes from a deeper level – human grief.
With seven months having passed since of her daughter’s brutal rape and murder, Mildred (Frances McDormand) rents three billboards on the highway to Ebbing, Missouri, and puts up her own version of the old Burma Shave ads, challenging the town’s chief of police (Woody Harrelson) on why no suspect has been found. The billboards become a sort of Rorschach test for the townspeople, and especially for the police. Chief Willoughby understands the grief fueling Mildred, though his wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) is less generous, knowing what her husband’s gone through in the past few months. Worse, though, is the reaction of Deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who’s had complaints against him for excessive force. For Dixon, the billboards are a personal slap in the face.
For Mildred’s son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), the billboards reopen the wound of the loss of his sister. Some in town, like Mildred’s coworker Denise (Amanda Warren) and car dealer James (Peter Dinklage), are sympathetic to Mildred. Others, though take offense, so the town becomes a minefield for Mildred. However, she’s equally explosive, if not more so.
The movie is a meditation on grief and guilt, though the cockeyed characters mine humor within a horrible situation. McDormand’s performance as Mildred is as harsh as her haircut, which looks like it was done with a weed whacker. She wears coveralls throughout the movie like a suit of armor. Her patience is at an end, and anyone who shows a smidgen of self-righteousness, be it a priest or a dentist or a teenager at school, will pay a price.
She’s matched by a golden performance by Harrelson who provides an emotional heart for the movie. He has come a thousand miles from his early sitcom work on “Cheers” to become one of the finest and most reliable supporting actors currently in films. As impressive, though in a much different tone, is Rockwell’s standout performance. He dives into his deeply flawed and in many ways distasteful character without holding anything back.
On the downside, McDonagh leaves some characters underwritten – Dinklage is pretty much wasted in his role – while others, including John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, drift into stereotypes. But the center of the story is strong enough to survive these weaknesses and still be memorable.
This is a story of characters stumbling their way towards a form of redemption. There aren’t easy answers or conventional resolutions. In the end life is messy and harsh, but at the same time it’s as precious as it is fleeting. That’s the human drama, and McDonagh manages to portray it in a humane way.