There is one scene in writer/director Martin McDonagh's stellar new film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that tells you, in ways both classically genteel and heartbreakingly honest, absolutely everything you need to know about this film that seems destined to be one of 2017's most debated and talked about films. In the scene, Mildred Hayes (Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand) and Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Academy Award nominee Woody Harrelson) have both given into their all-consuming rage toward one another, both justified in their own ways, and both have dropped their thinly veiled sarcastic jousting in favor of furious truths and drowning pools of grief and fear and inner demons.
Then, in one remarkable moment, everything changes.
Mildred Hayes is not the warm and sympathetic mother that you expect her to be when you first discover her story, that of a grieving mother whose complicated grief has become even more complicated rage following several months with no arrests in the kidnapping, rape and brutal murder of her teenage daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton).
We want Mildred to be the good ole' Southern gal with a righteous rage but a skewed way of expressing it. We want Mildred to be the kind of mama that we always see in these kinds of films, the kind of mama who kissed her daughter goodbye after a healthy family breakfast and a peck on the cheek.
But, oh yeah, that ain't Mildred. The truth is that we're never quite sure if Mildred was even a good mother to Angela, though it becomes more and more apparent that the last words spoken aren't the last memories you want to have when your loved one unexpectedly dies. We also know that she has a volatile, unpredictable relationship with her surviving teenage son, Robby (Lucas Hedges), who clearly loves his mother but grows increasingly tired of her vengeful actions. We also know that she was a financially struggling single mom, her abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) having run off with the vivacious 19-year-old Penelope (Samara Weaver).
In short, we get the feeling even before her daughter was murdered that Mildred was the kind of woman who was going to give back just about as much shit as she gets.
So, it's not exactly a surprise when Mildred walks into the office of local advertising man Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) and plunks down $5,000 to put up three billboards just outside of town. The three billboards read:
RAPED WHILE DYING
AND STILL NO ARRESTS
HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
It's a pointed attack that pours salt into Willoughby's psychological wounds over being unable to solve the case, horrifies Mildred's ex-husband, and completely sets off the already volatile Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), the department's second-in-command whose main coping skill for such aggravation seems to be going whupass on anyone and everyone he perceives as deserving it.
It's not surprising to learn that McDonagh, practically a master at weaving together quirky morality plays with pitch dark humor, wrote the part of Mildred specifically for Frances McDormand and has openly declared that had she refused the part he wouldn't have made the film.
Thank you, Frances, for accepting the part.
To call McDormand's performance a tour-de-force actually seems inadequate. McDormand's performance here is an almost unfathomable downhill snowball of maternal rage, not so maternal vengeance, remarkable empathy and, somewhat unexpectedly, overwhelming tenderness. There are those films you watch where you find yourself thinking at the end "There's no one else who could have played that part!" Indeed, after watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri it's impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part of Mildred. It's a remarkable performance that has to be considered a frontrunner for this year's Best Actress Oscar.
The only thing truly surprising about Sam Rockwell's outstanding performance as Officer Jason Dixon is the unexpected realization that the always remarkable Rockwell has never been nominated for an Academy Award.
I mean, seriously. How the fuck does that even happen?
Fortunately, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will end Rockwell's glaring omission from Academy Award history. Rockwell's performance, which at times flirts with caricature but never crosses that line, manages to quietly humanize the overtly racist cop with self-sabotaging impulses and a violent streak that seems triggered by anything and everyone who challenges him. While some have complained that Rockwell does, indeed, cross that caricaturish line, one need only read a few police disciplinary records to realize that, while they are in the minority, cops like Dixon do exist and Rockwell masterfully portrays all the complexity with broad humor and aching, transparent humanity that becomes richer as the story unfolds.
While Harrelson is tasked with the less showy part as the more even-keeled Chief Willoughby, the film is a perfect outlet for Harrelson's remarkable gift for meeting his co-actors both humanely and with quiet humor. During the film, you'll likely be most swept up by Rockwell's Dixon but several days after watching the film it'll likely be Harrelson's aching intimacy and ability to match McDormand's grief-fueled nihilism with his own unspoken streaks of Southern duty-filled cynicism that has us completely blown away by his character's story arc.
There are other terrific performances among the supporting players, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri undoubtedly featuring one of the year's finest ensembles. As the perpetually mocked James, Peter Dinklage rises above even Mildred's barbs and gives the film much of its humor without making it obvious and self-deprecating. John Hawkes is terrific as always, while Samara Weaver is a relatively bit player who makes the most of that bit. Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, and Caleb Landry Jones all have moments to shine.
McDonagh's screenplay may not resonate with everyone, but his layered and unpredictable characters infuse this thought-provoking and frequently funny story with oodles of humanity and the kind of authenticity and shadows so seldom afforded studio releases these days. Carter Burwell's original score is without doubt one of his very best, while Ben Davis's lensing is able to help maximize the film's lighter and heavier moments.
Easily one of 2017's best films, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri should easily pick up a handful of Oscar nominations with McDormand very likely looking at taking home the golden statuette. It seems inevitable that some will nitpick certain aspects of the smalltown Southern portrayals that unfold here, but just because a story is hard to believe doesn't mean it doesn't make perfect sense.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic