Mildred Hayes, brilliantly embodied by Frances McDormand (Fargo), wasn't really expecting justice any time soon when she rented a trio of roadside signs on the outskirts of her small town. But, as becomes clear in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, she sure as hell wants to be paid attention to. If the billboards don't work, perhaps drilling a hole in the town dentist's hand, or kicking a couple of high school kids in the groin, or tossing a Molotov cocktail into the local police station will do the trick. Mildred suffers a particular kind of pain but, in so many ways, she is also any one of us who have been abused, dismissed or marginalized. The best of us. The worst of us. None are immune to this kind of horror.
This amazing film, written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, plants itself right in the middle of our current national anger. Regardless of the source, the emotion is our common denominator, and while there is no tidy ending to Three Billboards that will assuage that anger, we can still find resolution in this superb tale: Often, good people can be multidimensional and contradictory and bad people may ultimately do the right thing. Three Billboards is only the third time McDonagh has been behind the lens, but it is near genius and required viewing. Your anger may not be washed away, but I can promise you that it will make more sense.
In the film, Mildred rents three billboards and has them bathed in red paint with black letters reading "Raped While Dying," "And Still No Arrests?" and "How Come, Chief Willoughby?" respectively. Mildred's daughter was raped, murdered and set ablaze, and so it's little wonder that her expression of sorrow/anger is permanent.
This is McDormand's best performance since her Oscar-winning turn in the 1996 classic Fargo - and yes, I am well aware that she has done plenty of amazing work since then - but it's impossible to imagine any other living actress as Mildred. Woody Harrelson (True Detective) conjures up his acting magic to bring life to the conflicted Police Chief Willoughby, a lawman who wants nothing more than to find the killer, but the case has gone as cold as Mildred's heart.
The sparks between Harrelson and McDormand when they share a scene could ignite a bonfire, and their ferocity is tangible. Willoughby is well aware of Mildred's straitjacket of pain, so he accepts her verbal abuse while he suffers a well-kept secret in silence (sorry, no spoilers here).
Then there's James Dixon, one of Willoughby's deputies. He's a racist and the biggest numbskull in Ebbing, and he's played with such such frenzied idiocy by Sam Rockwell, the actor is a sure bet for a long-overdue Oscar nomination. Dixon is an off-the-chain flake, bullied by his mother (an even bigger racist), and he can't wait to toss Mildred into jail for any reason whatsoever.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has so much character development, and the plot has has so many twists and turns (none of them false), that all you can do is ride this R-rated roller coaster. If any movie could require seatbelts to be installed in theaters, this might be the one.
The wrath that rains down upon Ebbing, Missouri could easily douse any other American community, including many in Idaho—speaking of which, Three Billboards reveals a big Idaho surprise at the end of the film. You won't get a spoiler from me, but when two of the surviving characters turn their vehicle to drive away from Ebbing, Missouri and head toward Idaho, it may trigger a reaction from Gem State audiences: perhaps an arched eyebrow, maybe a nod, possibly a knowing wince.
To quote another famous playwright, Arthur Miller, attention must be paid. Attention to Mildred. Attention to her billboards. Attention to one of the finest films of 2017.