Three Billboards is a tome that ruminates on the brokenness of people. Those broken or worn thin by grief, anger, disease, heredity or doomed to be trapped in a city from which they cannot escape. It’s about small, unlikely moments of humanity. Empathy either extended to or by those individuals who seem undeserving of it. About forgiving unscrupulous acts of violence born also from indifference and hatred. It’s about people overcoming their limitations, or misgivings, in the hopes of at least attempting to better themselves. Not a full redemption as some may point out, but their wherewithal to see the problems they’ve created and starting to pave the long long road to being not quite as terrible a human being. All this set off by a woman who wants an answer to (for her) a simple question: “How can I get justice, in a world that doesn’t seem to care?”
In truth, that’s just what sets off the powder keg. The fuse was lit long ago. Seven months prior, with the rape and murder of Angela Hayes. A crime so heinous and startling that it literally has scorched the earth. In front of Three Billboards that sit on the edge of town, away from the main highway. Forgotten since the mid-80’s. That is until Angela’s mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, never better, in a career defined by “never better” performances) rents them out. That’s not by mistake, but a larger design that playwright turned writer/director Martin McDonagh fills in over time, just as he does with the best of the film’s sordid characters. Complex to the point of cynical madness, just waiting for some kind of release.
On her path of righteous fury, Mildred sets her sights on signaling out Chief Willoughby (a dialed-in Woody Harrelson). She knows he’s a good man at heart, who harbors a secret, or at least believes he does, as the whole town already knows what ails him. Everyone in Ebbing has their own secret or a weakness that manifests itself in unhealthy ways. Ways that hurt people directly around them. Ways that, as Mildred puts it succinctly in a speech ripe for award show reels, makes everyone “culpable”.
Mildred may seem totally like a forceful wrecking ball, yet it’s almost out of necessity than her entire being. Her path of destruction is one born partially of penance, to lessen the burden of guilt. The guilt of a mother who feels she failed her daughter in a crucial moment. A mother who recognizes her own weakness, devoting all her energy to having someone solve her daughter’s murder, even when answers may be in short supply or entirely nonexistent.
What’s particularly interesting with Three Billboards is how it takes time to reveal the many layers in play. Characters grow, or expose levels that don’t initially seem to exist, due to early prejudice. Those reactions aren’t entirely wrong. McDonagh may seem like he’s painting in black and white, when it’s actually shades of gray. The home life of every major character gets explored, even if it’s merely the quietest of moments. Depth comes from empathy, as opposed to the histrionics of so many other films. When someone takes a stab at slight redemption (even foolishly so), it’s when they’re well past saving. For a fleeting moment they feel invincible, or righteous in their decision. Until, that is, the world steps in to remind everyone of how cold and cruel life can be.
Nowhere is this more true than with Dixon (Sam Rockwell, showing 7 kinds of range), Three Billboards‘ secret weapon. A character who starts off as a drunken, seemingly racist cop, slowly gives way to a complex figure. Some will write off this arc, but doing so would disregard important questions about Dixon the film wants to raise. These include his apparent dim-wittedness, unchecked anger and the ease with which one can manipulate him. There’s reason to believe that Dixon is a victim of circumstance, ignorance or at the very least an upbringing that influenced the way he sees a world. It doesn’t excuse any of his actions, just highlights those gray strokes McDonagh is so fond of.
In three short films Martin McDonagh has proven to be a fierce tactician, fusing his way with words and characters in stories that often border on the absurd. Here though, there’s a greater maturity at play. He digs deep into what makes people tick, without offering the kinds of easy solutions most audiences would hope for. Those may have immediate gratification, but Three Billboards aspires for something more. It wants to stay in the minds and conversations of those who see it. On that level alone, it’s a resounding success, skirting the edge of being a full-blown masterpiece, the likes of which deserve to discussed for quite sometime to come.