“Three Billboards” is an Angry, Hopeful Masterpiece


Martin McDonough’s masterpiece “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is perhaps the best film about anger I have seen. This is a movie that has a sense of cosmic anger; it’s not mad about something as petty as human interaction, but it’s mad about the daughter-raping, cancer-giving, body-crippling nature of the universe. It’s unfair. It’s really unfair, and more often than not, we feel completely resigned to the carnival show of misery that is human existence. Events in “Three Billboards” often feel out of the characters’ control. There is a sad inevitability to every act of violence. The characters are trapped in a world filled with cruelty.


The plot begins when Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents three billboards taunting police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for his inability to catch her daughter’s rapist and murderer. It is a Hail Mary that exists less to help with the case and more to help Mildred grieve and call out a cruel and senseless act of violence. She treats the billboards like a grave, tending flowers below them and protecting them from attack. Police Chief Willoughby is well loved in their small town, most intensely by Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a fatherless police officer who lives with his mother and is as racist and violent as a small town policeman can be.


Mildred and Dixon are the two freight trains of action in the film, with Willoughby making futile attempts to calm them down. They are both irrational, savage and unable to move past their rage at the cruelty of the world. Their actions always inspire the other; the billboards inspire a crackdown which inspires acts of revolution.Mildred needs to make her billboards and Dixon needs protect the honor of Willoughby. These are hollow acts of defence against the brutal and completely unreasonable universe.


The knowledge that they are so pointless inspires the rage; a sense of existential despair runs through this movie. Pondering the crime against her daughter and the injustice of it all, Mildred wonders, “‘Cause there ain’t no god and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other?” Then she sheepishly grins. “I hope not.” That little moment right there is what makes the movie. The characters in “Three Billboards” are so desperate to believe there is some kind of reason or justice in the world. Because of that, the film becomes hopeful as well. At some point –and it’s hard to tell exactly when — the movie assures us that we, the little cruel insects that we are, can cultivate our rage into some kind of kinship that leads to a less painful anger.


Writer Martin McDonagh loves playing with language and semantics and he has packed his film with little scenes of linguistic confusion and too many great one liners to count. Most memorably, Dixon’s insistence that he is a “persons of color torturer” is almost screwball in it’s ridiculousness.


The comedy and drama are secured by McDormand’s performance Mildred gets several great monologues in the film, which McDormand delivered magnificently to applause at my screening. Because she is supremely gifted, her dialogue scenes and face that carry the performance. She completely disappears into one of the most memorable and complex characters of her career.


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