I’m so conflicted about this film: I enjoyed it but I don’t think I like it.
Set somewhere (you guessed it) outside Ebbing, Missouri, Three Billboards focusses on Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), an anguished mother grieving the recent rape and murder of her daughter. In her frustration at the lack of resolution to her daughter’s case, she purchases billboard advertising to maintain the profile of the investigation. The billboards (which are kind of a symbol of Mildred’s helplessness) take direct aim at the local sheriff, causing unrest among the tight-knit local community. What follows is a domino effect of happenings fuelled by decisions made under a toxic cocktail of deep anger, hate and love. At its core Three Billboards isn’t really about a rape case; it takes a remarkably profound (yet kind of nonchalant) look at the morality of decisions made under emotional duress.
The above makes Three Billboards seem an unlikely vehicle for humour but Martin McDonagh’s screenplay features some freaking funny dialogue that was largely responsible for my enjoyment of the film. That being said, amid all of the excessive swearing, at times I found it a bit saccharine – not least when McDormand’s character starts chatting with a really unrealistic CGI deer (like, unrealistic to the extent that I couldn’t figure out whether it was meant to be in her head or not). In terms of the plot itself, there are too many conveniently coincidental occurrences for it to feel truly convincing and I absolutely hated its non-committal ending.
Frances McDormand delivers a solid performance. Mildred is willing to do anything she thinks will help her daughter’s cause but really ends up doing anything that she thinks will ease her own pain. As much as the character is doing all these bad things, McDormand makes sure the audience is always on her side. It’s crystal clear what’s driving her actions and McDormand is unwavering in the delivery of Mildred’s no-nonsense determination.
Three Billboards contains a whole host of minor characters the most prominent being terminally ill Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harelson) and racist police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Kudos must be given to Martin McDonagh for the depth of their personas and richness of their character arcs. Dixon is perhaps the film’s most interesting character and again, his actions throw the morality of emotionally constrained decisions into the equation. He’s overtly racist and shown to be homophobic but really he’s just super, super dumb and emotionally pained because of it. Sam Rockwell does a great job of depicting the worst of this complex character while reigning him back into the audience’s good books.
I found Three Billboards frustrating in a few different ways. It throws up all these questions about morality but never offers an answer or even opinion of its own. Further, multiple characters do awful things and never experience the legal ramifications of their actions, sure, their mental and emotional ailments may lead one to forgive those actions but it’s not the law’s job to forgive. It’s the law’s job to stick to the rules and it’s our job as human’s to stick to the rules even when that’s truly difficult.
It left me wondering what the point of Three Billboards is and I really don’t know and I really don’t know that Three Billboards knows what the point of itself is. So, I repeat. I enjoyed it at the time largely because of its wit and the stellar performances from Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell but in hindsight, I don’t like it.
Overall, (including a bonus half mark for a great Carter Burwell score) I give Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a rating of 3.5/5.