CREDIT: Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Željko Ivanek, Kathryn Newton

Director: Martin McDonagh

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Constant Cussing, Police Abuse, and Arson

Release Date: November 10, 2017 (Limited)

The release of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri could not be any more timely. We are currently living in a moment unprecedented in terms of the rate at which prominent sexual harassers and abusers are being exposed. By putting up the titular billboard triptych calling out local law enforcement for its inability to solve the case of her daughter’s rape and murder, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is instantly a symbol of this age. Unsurprisingly, she butts up against a fair deal of racism within the Ebbing police department. But that discrimination isn’t coming from Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who, though he may be a bit hard-edged, is absolutely well-meaning; he so wishes he had physical evidence in the Hayes case. And the racist officer in question might actually have some good detective in him and maybe even some decent humanity.

Based on his track record, writer/director Martin McDonagh is not an obvious choice to stick the sensitive landing that Three Billboards pulls off. With In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, he demonstrated his knack for understanding the foibles of humanity, especially when it comes to souls existentially cast adrift by the whims of fate. Such an approach would not be impossible for a film about an unsolved rape case, but it would be depressing. While McDonagh can be cutting, he is so for the laughs. It is not his bag to make his audience endlessly despair. Thus, while Three Billboards does feature plenty of his signature jabs, he ultimately re-calibrates his typical tone enough to make this effort truly uplifting.

The most astute trick that McDonagh pulls off involves the constant acknowledgement that individuals contain multitudes and are not easy to pin down, even in a story driven by something so obviously wrong as rape. Mildred’s crusade is righteous, but plenty of townspeople wish she would just go away. While much of that has to do with a tendency to defend the status quo, it is also due to her own prickly personality. But to be fair to her (and the movie certainly is), not many people have figured out how to insist upon justice while remaining kind. Willoughby receives the brunt of Mildred’s ire, and while he can be too heated for his own good, he knows what’s right. And because this movie is so generous to its characters, he has his own terminal cancer-fueled narrative. Also coming in hot is Mildred’s relationship with her ex-husband (John Hawkes), which turns especially nasty when it comes to his new much younger girlfriend (Samara Weaving). But it turns out that he is with her less because she is a pretty young thing and more because she has instilled in him a Zen calm, noting that anger only begets more anger.
The evolution of Officer Jason Dixon illustrates that proposition best of all. On the page, his transformation might read as too transformational to be believed, even with a writer as skilled as McDonagh. But thanks to the chops of Sam Rockwell, his redemptive arc reads as perfectly natural. When we meet him, Dixon is frequently drunk, openly racist, and constantly abusing his power. But when relieved of his badge, he finds room to make amends, ultimately teaming up with Mildred to fulfill his duty as a decent person. In a world where evil acts continue to be perpetrated, it is nice to know that humanity can persist.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Recommended If You Like: Fargo, M*A*S*H, Groundhog Day

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Fat Dentists