I don’t think it’s a particularly controversial take to say that 2017… has not been an overly great year for most of us. It’s a year that’s served as a harsh lesson about the evils of both America and modern society in general. About a year ago today, the nation and the world around it shifted perhaps irrevocably towards the bad in a pretty damn big way. A lot of us, in a difficult political climate such as this, have plenty to be angry about. A palpable rage has set over our country, and recent scandals and sexual assault allegations in both Hollywood and the general public arena suggest that the railing against injustice ain’t going away anytime soon. 2017 is a year where everyone is mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.
And I don’t know if any film this year has captured that deep, insatiable rage better than director/writer Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film that’s so impossibly on-target in its singular, perfect expression of that deep-seated anger that I’m not even sure where to begin. I’m still fresh from my first viewing 1 and I’m frankly having a hard time finding a single point to pick at. The film almost simply should not exist. There are so many ways it could’ve gone wrong, but it never does. It stays on target and follows it all the way through to the end.
The story follows Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a woman who’s been given better reason to be angry than most. She had to deal with both the grief and horror of having her daughter be raped and murdered, in a manner so horrifically gruesome that it’s almost hard to imagine a worse way to die. On top of that, the local cops of Ebbing, Missouri, led by Chief William Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson in a turn equally funny and heartbreaking, couldn’t turn up any answers in the case. Seven months pass without a word from the proper authorities who seem, as Mildred puts it, “too busy torturing black folks to solve actual crimes,” one of the film’s many biting commentaries, and Mildred has just had enough. She will not let this injustice stand as many in our society these days are continue to willing to let injustices stand. She sells her ex-husband (John Hawkes) her tractor-trailer, and uses it to buy the titular three advertising billboards outside of town. And the message she puts on them is… provocative, to say the least.
The billboards certainly garner attention, both from the media and from Willoughby’s racist, idiotic deputy Jason Dixon (Rockwell, note-perfect as always). And so, the chess match begins, with Mildred and her billboards and demands to not have her daughter’s case be forgotten at all costs on one side, and Willoughby and his men on the other, focused more on protecting their own and the peace than in executing true justice.
McDonagh’s previous films dealt with conventions of the cinema and brought startling degrees of humanity to characters who, on the surface, would seem to have anything but (hitmen in In Bruges, con artists and violent gangsters in Seven Psychopaths), while also commenting on both their natures as films and the conventions of the genres in which they were placed, threaded by a darkly comedic sensibility and a juggling of disparate tones that sometimes works and sometimes does not. In Bruges does this exceedingly well, while Seven Psychopaths’ formless-but-ultra-ambitious meta-narrative handles this less successfully. Three Billboards may take place in the seemingly more quaint Ozarks, rather than the romance of Hollywood or the fairytale land of Bruges, but it brings that humanity and tonal balancing all the same. Three Billboards is a movie where Sam Rockwell’s Dixon can start as a dumb, bigoted, completely unsympathetic villain, and by the end become a doomed, destroyed underdog who we simply hope finds peace. It’s a movie that refuses to make Mildred heroic and instead paints her as a ball of rage, guilt and pain, a woman who has nothing nice to say because she never really did. It’s a movie that understands that the world is full of injustice, such as the most decent man in it being both publicly thrown under the bus and being forced to deal with a horrific tragedy in his life at the same time, and understands that sometimes, all you can do is work through your anger and eventually, maybe, one day find your way out. As the old adage goes, “the only way out is through.”
And on top of all that, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is just a really, really great movie. It’s a movie that should not work. It takes so many risks in tone and storytelling, so many chances and big moves on the cinematic chessboard, that any one of them could’ve derailed it. But it somehow manages to keep going, and going and going, because McDonagh and his brilliant cast are just that good. It’s a movie that can turn hilarious, tense, horrific, heartwarming and heartbreaking, sometimes within the span of a single scene and yet it never feels tonally imbalanced, or forced, or dishonest, or like a cheat. Carter Burwell’s score recalls his work with the Coen brothers at times, and McDormand’s presence only serves to make that feeling stronger. I almost want to say that McDonagh has crafted a Fargo for 2017, with the alien winter land of Minnesota subbed out for the small-town landscape of the Ozarks, and the Minnesota niceties subbed out for a real sense of small-town community, a giant bar where everyone really does know your name.
But more than anything, what I want to say is that I don’t think there’s a more essential film this year than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Not only is it a magnificent piece of filmmaking and scripting, a breathtaking balancing act that manages to never lose the thread of its story despite jumping through so many different tones, but it’s also a deep, profound cry of both the rage of 2017 and the empathy to see us through. McDonagh understands the blind, myopic rage of his characters, but he also loves them, even ones as royally screwed as Rockwell’s Dixon, and all he wants for them is what he wants for all of us: to make it through these troubled times and come out stronger, more mature and overall changed for the better on the other side.