Going into 2017, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was amongst my most anticipated films, given my partiality for writer/director Martin McDonagh. McDonagh is a rare director, able to bring a playwright’s sensibilities to the script while engaging film’s strengths, resulting in works that have a heavily written and orchestrated feel but are also refined, full of rich and vibrant characters, and don’t contain one iota of fluff, all peppered with a dark sense of humour. While there is a minor departure toward graver territory, Three Billboards doesn’t disappoint, proving to be one of his most complete cinematic works yet.
The always-brilliant Frances McDormand stars as a driven, grieving mother, Mildred, who starts a personal crusade against the local police department in response to the lack of progress in the investigation into her daughter’s brutal rape and murder, singling out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) in the process. A variety of other characters, including a police officer who acts before he thinks (Sam Rockwell), a lovelorn dwarf (Peter Dinklage), and an advertising mogul (Caleb Landry Jones, whom I swear has been in every film this year), get sucked into the mix, embarking on their own journeys of self-discovery as the tale of the billboards unfolds. There’s breadth of supporting characters, and it’s heavily to McDonagh’s credit that virtually none of them is flat or one-note, no matter how small a role they play in the picture as a whole. McDonagh’s always had a knack for crafting compelling characters, but the sheer humanity he can afford in such a small amount of space to nearly everyone on screen is remarkable and significant in itself.
It’s easy to get trapped into spending this entire review discussing McDonagh’s script, as, like always, it really is the star of the show. It’s enticing to watch the film tread forward, only to begin wrapping in on itself over and over again, making callbacks to little details you might have dismissed and affording them a level of unexpected importance; in McDonagh’s world, there are no accidents or coincidences or meaningless things. It’s a phenomenal, self-aware style that opens itself up to frequent, revealing rewatches, and there’s certainly a case for Three Billboards to be considered his best script yet.
McDonagh is a master of juggling tones as well, exploring heavy subject matter through layers of pitch-black, deeply irreverent and crass humour without any of it feeling out of place or losing its punch. All of that is present here, but what caught me off guard was how the humour tended to take a back seat to the drama this time around. I certainly had plenty of laughs (the foul-mouthed Mildred is full of incredible lines and moments that would even make Harry from In Bruges‘ jaw drop), but there were surprisingly more sober moments of grief, pain, and self-reflection that really tended to overshadow everything else. Surely it works – each piece hits with the emotional punch intended – but if there is any flaw I’d have to pick from this film, it’s that less overt humour makes the strings more apparent as McDonagh tugs them, not making the show unappealing but reminding the audience that this is indeed a show nonetheless.
Another potential point of criticism is that McDonagh really isn’t much of a “visual” director. Not that his films don’t look good or are incompetently framed – far from it. McDonagh always blocks his shots intentionally and well, even playing with visual humour more than the average contemporary comedy director. He just tends toward a very simple presentation, which puts the bulk of the heavy lifting onto the actors and the dialogue. With Three Billboards, McDonagh gets a bit more adventurous at times (a tracking shot following Sam Rockwell as he blunders through an office in blind rage comes to mind), but it does tend to prove the rule as a whole. Of course that’s hardly problematic when he proves again his adeptness in directing his actors and coaxing thoughtful, juicy performances from them. Everyone shines in this film and gets their moment in the spotlight, but Frances McDormand really stands out for me. She gives Mildred so much power and strength of will, but at the same time we’re able to see straight through her more and more as the film goes on. McDormand always takes on fun and interesting roles, but I’m of the opinion that this is her best work since Fargo. Even in a crowded year for the Best Actress field, I can see her snagging a nomination.
Shifts in the tonal balance notwithstanding, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri wound up being about what I expected, and that’s not at all a problem. Martin McDonagh demonstrates serious growth as a writer and director of film while preserving the elements that have made me adore his previous work. It’s rude, emotional, twisted, crass, hilarious, heartfelt, touching, incessantly quotable, and human, and it comes with the highest recommendation from me. Just expect fewer laughs and more tears this time around.