I used to love billboards growing up. One of the more indelible memories of my childhood was our yearly trek out to the Jersey shore, sitting in my dad’s car with my brother watching the billboards going by. It was just as much of a part of it all as playing arcade games on the boardwalk and going to water parks. Billboards have become a particular relic of Americana, a charming if outmoded expression of advertising art, a key to the identity of the region in which they are found as much as an opportunity to sling Burma Shave or shout out the local morning DJs. The evolution of culture and advertisements has left billboards in the dust; with so much information at our fingertips at all times, the need to capture an audience confined to their cars just isn’t worth the money and the hassle that comes with its upkeep. They still exist, but mostly to just let you know that a McDonald’s is coming up in two exits, or that Jesus will definitely punish you for a wide variety of your assumed sins. The joy of it all, the interest of it, has been lost to time.
It makes sense then, to see the state of the run down, abandoned billboards that serve as the namesake and opening shots of Martin McDonagh’s new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Billboards may have lost their efficacy from an advertising perspective, but they can still hold the power to convey a message if used correctly. Such is the goal of Mildred (Frances McDormand), the mother of a murdered daughter distraught over the lack of movement from the local police department. Those billboards may be alone in a field on an almost entirely disused road, but when Mildred rents them from the local ad agency (run by Caleb Landry Jones) and puts up a provocative and simple three part message calling out the police for the lack of justice for her slain child, the close-knit little town is thrown into chaos. The police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a beloved figure with terminal cancer, and the townsfolk, as well as his subordinates (including Sam Rockwell’s Dixon, a hot-headed deputy) don’t take kindly to such a public call-out.
But Mildred continues on unabated, despite Willoughby’s insistence that they haven’t ignored her and the negativity heaped onto her son (Lucas Hedges) as she refuses to take down the inflammatory message. It’s a tough situation, pitting a profoundly wounded and grieving mother against a good-natured man who wants to help her but can’t. There are no winners here, just people trying to find some sense of worth or calm in an increasingly unfeeling world. Three Billboards feels overwhelmingly human in this way, full of thorny characters who tend to mean well (or at the very least act out of ignorance) but rub up against others who mean well in an opposite direction, causing sparks to fly that are both inevitable and unfortunate. It makes for an undercurrent of tragedy that never goes away. This is heavy stuff, something that might not be entirely expected from the likes of McDonagh considering his previous film work.
One of the reasons his films haven’t felt all that heavy despite his love for bleak storylines and violence is his trademark dark humor seen in In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, and that is definitely is still in effect with Three Billboards. Considering the subject matter, it’s easy to feel distressed at just how funny this movie about the rape and murder of a young girl, the ostracism of her mother as she seeks justice and revenge, a cop dying of cancer and his powder keg of a racist underling stirring up trouble, but the humor is undeniable. McDonagh has always had a way with words, and in McDormand he finds perhaps his best vessel for the acerbic poison-tinged wit needed to strike the balance needed to make a film like this not feel tone deaf or overly bleak to its audience. Her no-nonsense delivery that made her a star with Fargo works exceedingly well here, creating a brusque protagonist destined to win the hearts of audiences everywhere. She seems destined for an awards push similar to that role, which won her an Oscar, and it’s tough to deny her worth. There’s so much care in her performance, so much pain behind her eyes even when she gets good news. It has the same naturalism McDormand has always used to her advantage. It’s a showcase film for her, and she handles the heavy lifting with grace and passion. Harrelson makes for an excellent foil, deeply empathetic to her plight and almost as frustrated at the lack of movement to find the killer, but equally preoccupied with his own problems. It’s been a treat watching him in films like The Edge of Seventeen and War for the Planet of the Apes, and Three Billboards is another feather in his cap.
Rockwell is the other star here, the sort of cad who does all sorts of unspeakable things while hiding behind the power and protection of a badge in a small town, but we see in glimpses of his home life that he’s capable of good, capable of compassion even as he struggles with anger and bigotry and a fierce desire to protect his chief. It’s this sort of depth of character that McDonagh instills in all of his characters, no matter how big or small the role may be. Whether it’s John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Hedges, Landry Jones or Zeljko Ivanek (it’s really quite the remarkable cast), McDonagh takes the time to make them real characters with motivation, even if they only show up in a few scenes.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like an evolutionary step for McDonagh as a filmmaker and screenwriter. Both In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths were flights of fancy first and foremost, stories of mobsters and Hollywood film writers and dognappers. They are films of differing quality, but they are films that can be enjoyed with some distance from their subject matter. The subject matter of Three Billboards is of a different sort, dealing with rape, murder, grief and police brutality, among other things, the sort of story that can’t be experienced with the same detachment. Even as it entertains, with great one-liners and excellently performed humor, it also cuts deep in a way his other film projects haven’t. It’s patently impressive that he can pull this off, making a genuinely hilarious film that carries real weight at its core and isn’t afraid to hide it. It is unquestionably Martin McDonagh’s best film to date, and has the legs and the gumption to fight with 2017’s best. This is vital, unmissable cinema.