It’s been a bit over a week since I saw Martin McDonagh’s incendiary, inflammatory, angry Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and even now, I’m struggling with how I feel about the film. There is part of me that’s deeply frustrated with the movie for touching on controversial, important themes that it has no interest in truly grappling with – themes like police brutality and institutional racism, whose eventual sidelining in the film is truly frustrating. And yet, for all of that, I can’t deny the craft of the film on every level – from astonishing performances to a lacerating script, from beautiful visual elements to a haunting score – nor can I deny how much the message of the film hit home for me, even as I got frustrated by the film’s skirting of its bigger ideas.
So let’s begin with the film’s conceit, which is so good and propulsive that it gives the film an energy and strength it never truly loses. Three Billboards is the story of a grieving mother (Frances McDormand, who hasn’t been given a role this good since Fargo, and who brings an incredible performance with her) who leases three billboards outside of her small Missouri town in order to castigate and shame the local police force for its failure to figure out who assaulted and killed her daughter. It’s not hard to empathize with McDormand’s anger, which is palpable in nearly every frame and every interpersonal interaction; her loss (and its attending injustice) has stuck to her and left her in a constant state of impotent rage, one that directs itself to anyone unfortunate enough to be around her.
But the first sign that Three Billboards is more complicated and fascinating than you might expect comes in how it handles its police force. Because while our first impression of the force comes by way of Sam Rockwell’s belligerent, abusive officer, it becomes clear that the police are more accurately embodied by Woody Harrelson’s compassionate, dedicated police chief, who has clearly done his utmost on this case to no avail. And while much of Three Billboards should be experienced cold, suffice to say that McDonagh slowly reveals information about the chief that makes McDormand’s public shaming all the more problematic and complicated.
It would be easy to handwave Three Billboards aside as “both sides-ism” gone mad, a film where no one is right or wrong entirely, and instead are so polarized that they refuse to acknowledge the good points of the other side. But that’s not what this film has in mind; instead, while it’s nominally a film about this injustice and failed police investigation, it’s more than anything a film about how anger and grief can poison us emotionally, keeping us from being able to interact with the world around us and shutting down the very bonds that we need to have in our lives. And in a time and age when it’s so easy to be angry and frustrated and rage-filled at the slightest look at the news, McDonagh’s points about the toxicity of that are timely, trenchant, and valid.
And yet, that also finds the film grappling with Rockwell’s character, initially presented as the worst kind of police officer: abusive (both physically and verbally), racist, incompetent, and lazy. Rockwell brings an incomparable amount to the role, making it come to life as more than just comic relief, but also opening the door for the way the film complicates him, showing him as much a product of anger as McDormand in some ways. That’s a complicated choice, though, given how vile some of the things that Rockwell’s character is accused of, and can feel like the film wants to use toxic behaviors as “flavor text” and never really engage with them – and that’s before the final act begins to give him a sort of redemption arc that sits uneasily with me, no matter how good Rockwell is in the part.
For all of that, though, there’s little denying how successful Three Billboards is as a film. It moves like a rocket; the dialogue is every bit as good as you’d expect from McDonagh, shifting from pathos to vicious comedy to intensity without ever missing a beat; it’s beautifully filmed, with some knockout sequences; and the performances are truly incredible across the board, with McDormand giving one of the year’s best performances, and Rockwell and Harrelson being not far behind her. (And that doesn’t even get into the incredible supporting cast, which includes Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, John Hawkes, and so many more great character actors.) Yes, I struggle with how the movie shies away from the very themes it introduces…but if you look at the film not as a piece of social commentary, but instead as a character study and a look at rage in the modern world, it succeeds on every other level. I laughed (very hard) throughout it; I found it moving and effective; and more than anything else, I can’t quite stop thinking about it. And maybe that’s the most effective point of all about it.