In theaters now • Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, Sam Rockwell • TLM Rating 4/4
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” is one of the best movies of the year
Songwriters are often asked whether the music or the lyrics come first in the writing process. A similar, but far more telling, question could be directed at a screenwriter, in regards to story and characters. I would be particularly interested to hear the answer to that question from Martin McDonagh, whose latest film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” is one of the best movies of the year, if only for its nuanced characterization.
This is a story that comes from the inside out, dictated by flawed, irrational characters driven by emotion. Watching the film, it’s as if a writer is trying to tell the story of his choosing, but when he turns right, the characters go left; and by the time the second act begins, the writer gives up and lets the characters choose their own destinies. In doing so, their lives play out as a natural unraveling, rather than the forced progression of a tightly wound plot.
Frances McDormand headlines as Mildred Hays. Mildred has a soft center, but she emits callousness as both a defense mechanism and a cattle prod. This attitude isn’t altogether unwarranted, considering that her teenage daughter was raped and killed, and the local police were never able to identify the assailant, much less capture him. Seven months after the tragedy, still with an open wound, Mildred is driving down a backroad and takes notice of three weather-beaten billboards. Soon after, she marches into the local ad agency and pays to have the billboards call out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his department for their perceived ineptitude.
This decision upsets the balance in Ebbing, a small town where not only does everyone know your name, but your history. All of a sudden, people are taking sides. Mildred can’t even go to the dentist without having to defend herself from unnecessary drilling. Willoughby is a good man, but as he explains to Mildred—unsuccessfully—sometimes the bad guys don’t get caught, and if they do, it’s from some unforeseen circumstance. It seems that much of this film is about cosmic dissension—characters who find “unforeseen circumstances” to be unsatisfactory, and prefer the speed and exactitude of action.
One of those characters is Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a rash, boneheaded police officer whose desk is littered with comic books and a half-empty jar of peanut butter with a plastic spoon sticking out of it. Through the accusations, banter and behavior of others, we’re led to believe that Jason was a perpetrator in an incident with racist overtones. With this information to go on, we’re conditioned to view him as an antagonist, but McDonagh has no use for such things. He rehabilitates Jason, not through acts of kindness or apologies, but simply by allowing us to know him. By the time the film ends, we no longer see him as a villain, or even a hero; he’s just a screw-up trying to find his way, like everyone else.
All of that is in the writing, but when the baton reaches the actors, it’s their job not to trip. McDormand and Rockwell over-deliver in their respective roles, finding in their characters the heart, the pain and the comedy, more often than not in the same place. In a line destined to be memorized and often repeated, McDormand smoothly rattles off a shish-kabob of obscenities to a field reporter, leaving the woman in a state of paralysis. I haven’t seen anything like it since George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Outside of the big names, John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage make appearances in small, but robust roles; they leave us feeling that these characters have lives beyond the run-time of the film.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is McDonagh’s most mature work as a filmmaker, so far (not that there’s anything wrong with his immature works, as “In Bruges” remains one of the funniest black comedies ever made). While I could go on praising the film’s wide-range of emotion and the deftness with which it navigates, pulling a handful of adjectives out of a hat, what’s most important is that this is a movie where the characters come first. We meet them, we spend time with them and we leave them. We may not always like them, but, hopefully, we’ve come to understand them.
Hunter Lanier is a Houston-based film reviewer who appears on the Critics Circle podcast from the Houston Film Critics Society. All images courtesy Fox Searchlight