Whew. This was a tough one to watch.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is probably one of the hardest films I’ve viewed in a while. It’s not because it’s a bad film or that it’s poorly made. No, it’s because the film is so heavy. Everyone in the film is damaged in some way, which gives it a heightened sense of realism. After all, aren’t we all damaged somehow? We all have our crosses to bear, whether mentally, emotionally or physically. No one goes through this world unscathed, although it’s a lovely notion.
“Three Billboards” tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose daughter was kidnapped, raped and killed. It’s been months with no leads, and the case has gone cold. So, Mildred rents three billboards on a road few folks travel. They read:
“Raped while dying”
“And still no arrests”
“How come Chief Willoughby?”
The chief in question is played by Woody Harrelson, and he doesn’t take kindly to the billboards, and neither does most of the town. Mildred faces a battle, both at home and in her daily life, with scores of people coming at her with venom and anger, but perhaps none so strongly as one of Willoughby’s officers, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
Dixon is played as your stereotypical redneck drunk. He’s a not-overly-bright racist with violent tendencies, even going so far as to torture a black prisoner. He lives with his mama — also a drunken redneck — who urges on his anger and violence. He’s truly disgusting, and it’s horrific to watch him unleash his anger on an advertising agency.
But, as unlikable as Dixon is, it’s not really fair to say that Mildred is delightful. She’s a character who strikes out at most everyone she knows. Her smiles are rare and usually at the expense of others. And, it’s not just her daughter’s heinous death that made her so cold and unloving. The film only has one flashback, and in it, we see her interactions with her daughter on the day she died. It’s cringeworthy and painful.
That’s kind of the point. This film is filled with cringe-worthy and painful moments. For example, Willoughby comes to Mildred after she’s first put up the billboards. He’s sympathetic to her situation and tries to explain the police have exhausted all possible leads in the case, but he has hope they’ll find something. Mildred is unmoved. So, he tries a new tactic: He tells her he’s dying of cancer. Mildred already knew. Willoughby is blown away by the fact she still attacked his character, even knowing he’s not long for this world. Mildred’s response? “They won’t be as effective after you croak.”
Two older ladies to my left laughed out loud at this. (They also talked throughout most of the movie, but I won’t dwell on that.) I let out a chuckle at the audacity of the line, but it was kind of that nervous laughter when you don’t really know what else to do. Hearing someone treat death so casually, especially after what happened to her daughter, is mind-blowing. The look on Willoughby’s face completed the painfulness of the exchange.
The film is chockfull of moments like this! Peter Dinklage, of “Game of Thrones” fame, plays James, a dwarf that’s got a crush on Mildred. He finally scores a date with her after he becomes an alibi for another bad thing she’s done. It’s a bit like an exchange of services. It doesn’t go well, though, and completely bottoms out after Mildred’s ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving), show up at the same restaurant.
But, here’s the kicker. All of these characters, no matter how vile or how much we should dislike them, have an undeniable humanity within them. Penelope is the character that we should all hate. She’s young enough to be his daughter and hot, but the character is written in such a way that while she might be a young trollop with daddy issues, she’s the purest and most undamaged character. You can’t help but like her. Seriously, she’s just precious.As you might be able to gather from these descriptions, there aren’t clear good guys and bad guys in this one. Sure, Charlie is dating someone young enough to be his daughter. She’s way more likable than Mildred, though. And while Mildred paints a portrait of an inept police department that has failed to do its duty, Willoughby is, by far, my favorite character. That’s partly due to the writing but also to Harrelson’s performance. He’s full of Southern charm, wit and a desire to do what’s right. His story is fleshed out by interactions with his wife and little girls, and it’s beautiful.
The story and the characters are nuanced and effective. Each character’s arc is dynamic and fluid. Dixon goes from a raging jackass to someone we begin to understand. Willoughby controls his own destiny and creates powerful heartbreak. Mildred walks a thin line between hope and becoming the monster of her own story.
“Three Billboards” is a good film. It’s an excellent one, even. But, it’s not a film I ever need or want to see again. The film is an experience. It’s a powerful one that resonates on multiple levels. It’s a timely film of violence against women and race. It’s a film that makes you wonder just how far you’d go if someone you loved was hurt or if you were the one hurting. But, it’s not a film that entertains. It’s not a film that makes you feel good. It’s a gut punch to the stomach, much like last year’s Oscar winner “Manchester By the Sea.”
“Three Billboards” is nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. McDormand rightfully earned a nod for Actress in a Leading Role while Harrelson and Rockwell both earned nominations in a supporting role. Martin McDonagh didn’t make it in the Best Director category, but he did get a nod for Best Original Screenplay. It’s got a good chance at bringing home awards, but the field is crazy tough this year with films like “The Shape of Water” and “Lady Bird” as contenders, as well.
If you’re looking for a morally ambiguous story populated by broken, fallen people who are attempting to navigate the unnavigable, then this one is for you. Just don’t expect something cathartic.