Mildred’s (Frances McDormand’s) daughter was raped and murdered seven months prior to the events which begin Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which I will from here on out abbreviate as Three Billboards). The case is cold and Mildred has heard nothing from the police in a long time. On her drive home one day she notices the three long abandoned billboards which sit aside a road no one uses anymore unless they are lost and gets an idea to get the local police working on the case again. She rents out these three billboards to send out a message in 20-foot tall letters, “Raped while dying” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” When the local morning newscast reports on the story of the meaning behind these three billboards, Mildred’s family’s tragedy not only becomes a hot topic dividing a town between those who defend local Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and those who defend Mildred, but also spirals out of control seemingly contagiously spreading tragedy throughout the small town of Ebbing.
The dramedy is an art form which seems to have been gaining popularity since the late ’90’s or so and has now become so popular it is practically trite. Three Billboards, however, despite its marketing is not a movie I would apply the term dramedy to. I would call Three Billboards the far less often used tragicomedy. This is a film in which horrible decisions are made and horrible things happen to people who themselves are not horrible over and over again. It’s a story about how the way we react to the troubles in our lives can spread and spiral out of control until our own personal tragedies have now inflicted tragedies on those all around us. Before you stop reading right here wondering why you would ever want to inflict such misery on yourself as entertainment, that is only the beginnings of this film’s wisdom. The way it handles these tragedies can be heartbreaking or can be very funny depending on the depth of the catastrophe, but Three Billboards always handles the hurdles it throws at its characters with the film’s messages and the character’s personalities and motivations in mind.
The movie isn’t about torturing its characters for comic or tragic effect, though. There is a very deep, very needed message behind the suffering going on in Ebbing. While I won’t come right out and say what that message is, I will say that it is embodied in showing the difference between how Mildred, Willoughby, and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) each handle their own grief. While this lesson is poignant, the wisdom of the movie surpasses even the knowledge of how tragedy and grief work, beyond the central lesson of its three primary characters, but also manages to show us that writer and director McDonagh understands first and foremost that none of us can ever be perfect and therefore does everything in a completely non-judgmental, non-preachy way. He simply gives us very realistic, three dimensional, relatable characters in a very recognizable situation and lets it all speak for itself, except with far more clever dialogue than normally comes out of the mouths of normal people.
It will be no surprise to learn that with this cast (in addition to McDormand, Rockwell, and Harrelson, we also have Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Zeljko Ivanek – you’ll know him if you look him up) the acting is incredible. In a story that demands it has truly real people dealing with truly horrible situations the entire experience rides on the shoulders of the ensemble, not just their personal performances but on how well they work with each other, and they exceed expectations. Not a single action seems forced, not a single spoken word awkward, and no one tries to steal some spotlight when it isn’t their turn to shine. Special mention in this department needs to go to Sam Rockwell. Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson do what they do here, and they do it well, but Sam Rockwell gives the performance of a lifetime so far above and beyond anything I’ve seen him in before, I really had no idea he was capable of this level of performance, and yes, I have seen Moon. He has to play a character who is seemingly contradictory, who is at times the most loved and other times the most hated person in the entire story, and who for a good chunk of the climax of the film has to carry the movie’s emotional weight on his shoulders, and he not only pulls it off but he does so in a way which doesn’t draw too much attention to himself.
The visual part of the storytelling in Three Billboards definitely does justice to the phenomenal writing and acting on display. It’s far from the most spectacularly shot film this year, but its still quite gorgeous and enhances the mood nearly perfectly. Perhaps even better than the cinematography is the editing. The film does have a minimal amount of stunts and action, but the vast majority of the film relies on speech and silence for its power, and those who put together the final cut got that pacing exactly with never a moment that seemed like it was dragging, nor a scene which seemed rushed. We linger on a moment exactly when the emotional power demands it and we move on before that emotion is lost.
Ultimately what Three Billboards does best is give us perspective. Not all cops are bad, but neither are they saints. Victims are not always innocent, but neither do they “deserve it”. Three Billboards examines subjects like domestic abuse, racism, police brutality, and no matter what your political leanings and intellectual and emotional state you will see something from a new, surprising point of view which will make you sit up and realize that nothing in this world is as black and white as we would like it to be.
Final verdict: I don’t recall having ever seen a film that understands grief and tragedy quite as well as Three Billboards. I’ve certainly never seen one that handles it in quite the same manner. This is a film that understands both the intellectual and the emotional elements of tragedy, and how our reactions to our own tribulations can affect any and all around us. It’s a movie about the cause and effect of being human and can be heartbreaking one moment while bringing absolute joy the next without ever being judgmental, manipulative, cloying, nor sentimental. It uses humor not so much to make us laugh but to enable us to keep watching and to ferret out the wisdom which seeps through every element of this fantastic film. This film may be difficult for some to watch, but even for them, I am labeling Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri essential viewing. I’m not quite ready to slap the label of masterpiece on it, yet, but it’s close enough that I am very tempted and wouldn’t be remotely surprised if I decide it is in the future.