Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a hell of a movie. It isn’t perfect, but is a thoughtful and thought provoking film. It has several excellent performances and some really interesting things to say about how people deal with trauma. It is also really funny. It is simply one of the best movies released this year.
The movie opens with McDormand’s Mildred deciding to place three billboards on a largely abandoned stretch of road near the small town of Ebbing, Missouri that calls out the local police, and popular Chief Willoughby in particular, about why there has been no progress made in the investigation of her daughter’s murder. It provokes some responses; some support angry, many angry, and things soon spiral out of control.
It is certainly Frances McDormand’s movie and she is as good here as she has ever been. She imbues Mildred with palpable hurt and anger about the loss of her daughter. She isn’t always easy to like, and does several things that are simply wrong. Still, she is very relatable. Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby is also great; he is a mostly good man dealing with his own struggles. He certainly has blind spots, egregious blind spots, but he is at least trying to the right thing. The most outstanding performance is Sam Rockwell as Dixon, an incompetent, racist cop who appears much more interested in settling personal grievances than doing his job. The movie doesn’t do much to redeem those flaws about him, but it does eventually give you the rest of the picture, and he becomes a full figured character. Everybody else is good, but those three give the best performances.
While the film raises a lot of questions about difficult issues, it is really about anger and how people process it. It doesn’t suggest that anger is a bad or inappropriate response to terrible things, but it also shows how acting in anger isn’t always the best idea. Mildred is understandably and justifiably angry, though she might not have the right target for her rage. Likewise, Dixon is all rage at frequently innocent targets, but his is shown to be frustrated at his inabilities. He can’t solve Mildred’s case, he can’t help Chief Willoughby, but he acts in whatever way he can to do so. Willoughby is the most at peace with troubles. He could react with anger to what happens to him, but he accepts it with something resembling calm. The movie doesn’t suggest that Willoughby’s reaction is necessarily the right one; it instead shows how anger can help people process tragedy, but at some point you have to process or the anger becomes merely destructive. It is really great.
Those difficult issues it brings up, and doesn’t really deal with, are a problem. Mildred’s ex-husband is abusive, but it also has him dating a significantly younger girl and doesn’t even acknowledge that this might be a terrible thing for her once he reverts to form. It also level accusations of racism against the cops, and one in particular, but the movie never really does anything with that information. I like that it has the nuance to not make any of its characters out and out villains, but it also lets some of them off the hook too easily.
This is undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year. I haven’t seen any of McDonagh other movies, In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths, but I intend to rectify that shortly. It is rare to get a movie that is this unpredictable and enjoyable.