A mature yet blackly comic study of personal trauma in middle-America
The title of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri places the film within an oddly specific setting, but this emphasis might be misleading. Although the story is confined within the small, fictional town of Ebbing, the events which unfold seem to stand for American society as a whole – and it is not a flattering picture. Depicting a community where ugly tensions simmer beneath a benign exterior, writer and director Martin McDonagh clearly has something to say about the rage and disharmony which has come to characterise the modern United States. The film offers no easy answers to the broken society which it observes, but endeavours to ask where all this anger has come from – and how we might find our way back.
The third film from the British-Irish film-maker, Three Billboards is McDonagh’s most mature and rewarding work yet. Anyone familiar with his previous comedy-dramas, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, will be well acquainted with his acerbic and often profane wit, but this film also relies on a weighty sense of tragedy. Indeed, the story functions primarily as a study of personal trauma, and how far we allow it to define ourselves and our communities. Almost every character within Ebbing is afflicted with their own, private tragedy, and none more so than Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes.
The tough and abrasive Mildred is McDormand’s meatiest role since her Oscar-winning turn in the Coen brother’s 1996 crime-caper, Fargo. With a permanent scowl and a John Wayne swagger, Mildred always cuts a fearsome presence, but McDormand also inhabits her character with the merest hint of vulnerability beneath the harsh exterior. The result is a multi-faceted performance which feels as authentically lived-in as her battered blue overalls.
McDormand inhabits her character with the merest hint of vulnerability
Opposite McDormand, Woody Harrelson is routinely excellent as local Sheriff Bill Willoughby, but Sam Rockwell captivates as his moronic deputy, officer Jason Dixon. An utterly reprehensible and unscrupulous personality, Dixon represents all that is wrong with American law enforcement, yet Rockwell imbues his performance with a surprising degree of humanity. In many ways, Dixon feels like the emotional heart of the film; angry, morally confused, but ultimately a product of his environment.
In this way, McDonagh’s script refuses to allow any of its players to revert to cliché or predictability. Ebbing is a community populated by characters who are continually one-step ahead of the audience’s expectations. It’s refreshing to see a film defined by moral ambiguities and shades of grey, and it allows the drama to move into satisfyingly unexpected territory. In refusing to accommodate a binary world of heroes and villains, Three Billboards makes a case for the value of empathy and understanding over anger and cynicism.
It’s refreshing to see a film defined by moral ambiguities
Fortunately, despite the film’s philosophical aspirations, Three Billboards also finds time to be very funny. The ease with which McDonagh moves between hilarity and heartbreak is something to behold, much thanks to the phenomenal range of McDormand and Rockwell. The blackly comic tone never feels like a betrayal of the film’s sombre subject matter, but a natural extension of Ebbing’s peculiar world. Nevertheless, Ebbing represents more than an idiosyncratic setting – it stands for all the communities which live in fear and resentment of one another, where violence and corruption is accepted as a matter of fact. These three billboards might as well be outside anywhere.