At first glance, humanist might seem an odd description of British playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). His comedic tales are filled with crazy plot twists, cartoonish violence and characters that speak with a delicious eloquence most people can only dream about attaining. However, McDonagh always finds the essential humanity in all of his characters, even the most despicable, which only deepens the moral complexity at the heart of his work. This has never been truer than in the excessively titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The title, at once oddly prosaic and wonderfully eccentric, is just a first hint of the subtle game that McDonagh is playing in this hilarious yet moving comedy.
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A terrible crime has taken place in the in the small town of Ebbing: A teenage girl, Angela Hayes, has been raped and murdered. The film begins months later as life is starting to return to normal. The case has gone cold and both the townspeople and the sheriff’s department are moving on. This sense of life going on unchanged infuriates Angela’s mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand). She is determined to do whatever is necessary to keep her daughter’s case in the public eye. Mildred sells her ex-husband’s truck and pays a local advertising company to put up three billboards demanding that sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) explain why the murderer has not been caught. When the billboards become a TV news story, and Mildred suggests that the police are too busy beating up black people to catch Angela’s killer, everyone starts to take sides between Mildred and sheriff Willoughby. As Mildred, the cops and various Ebbing citizens prove willing to resort to violence, events soon begin to spin wildly out of control.
Although it is a vividly cinematic work, McDonagh’s playwright roots show in the way the film is built around a series of richly written confrontations between the protagonists. The words McDonagh has written for them are evocative and explosively comic, but their full force only comes across thanks to a trio of amazing performances. McDormand is stunning as an already forceful, no-nonsense woman who has been pushed past the breaking point by the loss of her child and is willing to do anything, even sacrifice her own family, to get justice. As sheriff Willoughby, Harrelson creates a subtle portrait of a decent man pulled in various directions by forces beyond his control. Sam Rockwell gives a career performance as officer Jason Dixon, a racist, violent and outwardly not-very-bright police officer whose life will ultimately be the most dramatically transformed in an inner journey that the actor recently described as “Barney Fife turns into Travis Bickle.”
McDonagh’s focus on character allows him to find both pathos and comedy in a tale rooted in loss. What begins as a simple story of one woman’s righteous crusade gradually evolves into a multi-layered exploration of the morality of vengeance and the possibility of redemption, while still remaining very funny.