Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) world is inhabited by broken souls; well-intentioned but flawed people who hurt the ones they love because they have not found any other way to cope. Pain passes between individuals in an endless cycle of violence, and we watch as it grows, infects, and destroys everything in its path.
Months after her daughter was raped and killed on her way back home, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents three decrepit billboards outside her hometown of Ebbing, Missouri. On them, she calls out the beloved local sheriff William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for his incompetence and failure to find the culprit. Her desperate call for justice soon turns into an all-out war against the police department and most of Ebbing’s small community.
The rest unfolds in ways that would make the Coen Brothers proud, albeit with more explicit violence and swear words than they would dare put to film. Blood is spilled, and moral intuitions are questioned before being furiously shattered. Three Billboards is as darkly funny as anything this side of The Lobster and as emotionally taxing as 2014’s Room, often both at once. A particularly brilliant interrogation scene between Hayes and Willoughby features one of the most shockingly beautiful film moments of the past few years. McDonagh’s script is full of unexpected turns, uproarious snappy dialogues, and fascinating character developments. Count this one in for a Best Screenplay nomination at all major award shows this year.
As the gruff, vengeful Hayes, McDormand offers a performance worthy of her iconic turn as police officer Marge Gunderson in Fargo. However, this isn’t to say the two have anything in common: Whereas Marge was a ray of sun piercing through the endless Minnesota winter, Hayes is more the type to start brawls at junior league hockey games. Still, there’s a tragedy to her character, as hiding behind a wall of insults and crotch-kicks is a woman who has endured torment all her adult life: One who has deprived herself the right to connect with anyone on a deeper level.
Arguably more impressive, however, is Sam Rockwell’s fantastic turn as Willoughby’s second, Officer Dixon. We get to know him as a power-hungry man-child who never faced any real consequences for beating up an innocent black teenager. He is a man who still lives with his mom despite his graying head, and does not seem quite as displeased with this situation as he pretends. As McDonagh gives the racist cop a redemptive arc, Rockwell works wonders to transform Dixon’s pathetic character into a fully-fledged human being.
It is unclear whether redemption awaits these anti-heroes, or even if they truly want it for themselves. McDonagh argues that self-awareness is only the first step of a tortuous process which the world certainly will not support. But it is a big step nonetheless.