Martin McDonagh might not be a household name, but he’s distinguished himself as one of the 21st century’s finest filmmakers in just a short amount of time. His 2004 short film Six Shooter won an Academy Award, which is one way to hit the ground running. With In Bruges, he delivered the most impressive debut feature film since Sam Mendes directed American Beauty. His follow-up feature, Seven Psychopaths, remains an unsung comedic masterpiece. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri may not be as rewatchable as McDonagh’s previous two films, but it is his most mature, timely, and important picture to date.
Frances McDormand gives what might be the second best performance of her career – right after Marge Gunderson in Fargo – as Mildred Hayes. Where Marge was optimistic and seemingly had all the right answers, Mildred is the complete opposite. She’s a cold and cynical human being even before her daughter is raped and murdered. The cops hit a dead end with the case, which motivates Mildred to take her anger out on Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Purchasing three billboards, Mildred calls out the local police department. Even after learning that Willoughby is dying from cancer, she refuses to take the billboards down until her daughter’s killer is found.
Sam Rockwell is one of those character actors that’s been turning in effective work for years, but never seems to get his due. He delivers a Best Supporting Actor caliber performance as Jason Dixon, a racist, inconsiderate officer that’s more interested in abusing his powers than serving justice. It’s the dynamic between Jason, Willoughby, and Mildred that make this film a modern classic. Within the first half hour, the audience may think that they have these three characters all figured out. As the story unfolds, however, we start to see layers to them that take us by complete surprise.
We identify with the frustrated Mildred, who appears to have nothing to lose. Of course that doesn’t mean her actions don’t have serious ramifications. It would’ve been easy to just make Willoughby a villain, but he truly sympathizes with Mildred’s circumstances. With no leads, however, he’s unable to do his job. Something similar can be said about Jason, who’s gone through most of his life believing that he’s a screw-up that can’t do anything right. When given a chance to prove himself, he’ll stop at nothing to find redemption.
These people all have one thing in common: they want to take control of unfortunate situations that simply have no easy answers. Each of them feels powerless and the more they try to seize control, the most chaotic life becomes. In a society currently overrun with racial profiling, sexual assault, and less than perfect authority figures, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is bound to make a powerful connection with viewers. While it’s by no means an easy film to watch, McDonagh masterfully balances the heavy drama out with dark comedy, gripping performances, and brutal honesty. Of all the movies released in 2017, this one overflows with the most humanity.