It has been almost ten years since Martin McDonagh made his feature film debut with a little crime film called In Bruges and yet he’s still established himself as a pretty strong voice in pop culture just the same. I wasn’t expecting much from In Bruges, a movie that was basically advertised as a Tarantino riff of modest ambition, and while I didn’t immediately love that movie as much as some people it did certainly exceed my expectations. It was a movie that managed to easily transition between some legitimate psychological turmoil on the part of its characters and this very biting and subversive sense of humor. At the end of the day I don’t know that it quite had the substance it needed underneath it all, but it’s a movie that’s improved my memory more than I would have expected. His sophomore effort Seven Psychopaths, on the other hand, went all in on that subversive sense of humor and pushed it into a place of meta-textual anarchy that proved to be a little too messy and too crazy for its own good. Despite how nutty that movie was it didn’t actually seem to leave much of an impression on the culture and in many ways his newest film, Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri feels like a more direct continuation of what McDonagh started with In Bruges but also feels generally weightier more focused than that movie.
As the title implies the film takes place in and around the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri and follows a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced woman with a high school aged son named Robbie (Lucas Hedges). Mildred is at this point a rather prickly woman who’s done taking crap from anyone and is at this point reeling from the violent death of her daughter Angela (played in flashbacks by Kathryn Newton) seven months prior. Angry that the town’s chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has yet to make progress on her case she decides to rent three billboards on the outskirts of the town which read “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” respectively. In town this causes a great controversy, in no small part because Willoughby is a very popular figure in town despite the fact that a lot of his deputies seem to act like dictatorial monsters, especially one named Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dangerously stupid little monster who is alleged to have tortured an African American suspect in a prior incident. What follows is a standoff of sorts between this determined woman and a police force that is completely unprepared to look itself in the mirror.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has widely been hailed as a remarkably topical movie given that it’s about a strong willed woman trying to make sure a rapist is held accountable. It’s not too hard to read the film that way, but there are a couple issues with that. For one, while sexual assaults often aren’t taken as seriously as they should be by law enforcement, it’s usually less extreme cases like date rapes that have trouble getting investigated or rapes that occur in areas that are backed up by bureaucracies. A white girl being forcibly raped by a stranger and then viciously killed and burned alive in a rural area is not one of those cases, that’s the kind of thing that usually does get significant police and media attention. The movie does acknowledge this; the first thing that Willoughby does upon hearing about the billboards is try to go to Mildred and explain everything he’s done to investigate the case and the reasons why the trail went cold. The film’s take on Willoughby himself is a bit complicated. He doesn’t seem like a “bad” guy exactly but he does allow bad things to happen through a sort of obliviousness. He willfully employs Dixon even though he’s plainly both a racist and an incompetent officer to boot basically just because he doesn’t have the vision to improve on the town’s status quo.
The film works better if viewed less as a specific expose of how police handle sexual assault cases and more as a metaphor for the process of what’s needed for citizens to hold their governments accountable. The dysfunction going on at the Ebbing sheriff’s office plainly runs deeper than their handling of this one case and Mildred makes it clear throughout the movie that in addition to her anger that no arrests have been made in her daughter’s case she also frequently points out that the deputies spend their time harassing African Americans and is in general need of reform but no one seems to do anything simply because the like Willoughby and never seem to think to challenge him either out of some kind of courtesy or fear. The film suggests that sometimes “good” people need to be exposed in order to make needed change happen and that this kind of protest often involves sacrifice and determination and that there’s no guaranty of accomplishing what you set out to do. The film is also interested in the possibility of improving certain people and reconciling them to a certain side, which is where it perhaps runs into trouble. There’s a redemption arc here for one of the characters which is going to be a bit of a hard sell for a lot of people.
This should not, however, be mistaken for some dry take on civil action, it is still a Martin McDonagh film with all of the irreverence that this implies. Much of the film’s entertainment value comes from it the cleverly biting and often politically incorrect lines that McDonagh puts in Mildred’s mouth as well as Dixon’s shameless incompetence. If you’ve watched the red band trailer for the film or you’ve seen other movies by McDonagh or his brother John Michael McDonagh you probably know what to expect from the movie’s humor and it’s brought to life very well by the cast, who adeptly manage to strike the right balance between serious naturalism and heightened comedy. I would caution people that this isn’t necessarily a laugh a minute comedy so much as a dark story with frequent moments of piercing wit. The film also loses some steam in its second half when the shtick starts to wear off a bit and that somewhat questionable redemption arc starts to kick in. That McDonagh is a playwright originally becomes clear as the movie goes on. It’s not that if feels locationally condensed or conspicuously talky but the themes all present themselves and the plotlines all come together in a way that feels self-contained in a way that a stage play would. Still, it’s a bold piece of work for the most part which finds a unique way to present its themes and is for the most part well worth seeing.