A young girl is raped while dying in the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. Time passes, and her case is yet to be solved. Out of frustration and anger, the girl’s mother decides to take matters into her own hands in a very creative and attention-grabbing way. Sounds simple enough, but there is definitely an underlying complexity that resides in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the Best Picture nominee written and directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths).
Mildred Hayes (played by Francis McDormand), filled with anger at the fact that her daughter’s murder has yet to be solved, decides to rent out three billboards leading into town. The billboards depict the graphic way her daughter died, and places the blame of no arrests made on the town’s revered chief of police, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Especially angered by Mildred’s decision is Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist momma’s boy with a history of brutality while wearing the badge. As the story unfolds, what seems like a clear-cut demand for justice turns into battles of vengeance that question the very character and morality of the people involved.
The performances in this film are spectacular, especially by our main three. McDormand commands every scene she is in as this tortured mother still grieving over her daughter’s death. She is a perfect balance of strong, determined force to be reckoned with, and a broken parent fighting an inner pain that she cannot cure. Harrelson’s portrayal of Willoughby is perfect. He views the attacks against him on the billboard as unfair but shows sympathy to this grieving mother. Finally, Rockwell embodies the role of Dixon phenomenally. His portrayal of Dixon is that of a lead henchman who acts like the big tough guy unless Willoughby reels him in. He wears his bigotry and anger on his sleeve and makes no apologies for them. His performance alters as the film moves on, when a decision made by Willoughby moves our focus onto his battle with Mildred.
Writer/director Martin McDonagh has faced some criticism regarding elements of his script. The focus of the criticism lies primarily upon the character of Dixon. It’s explained that the character is a racist with a violent history on citizens, both in custody and free. Critics have felt the racist element is limited to a plot device and not given more attention. Also, after a specific few events that occur (events I’m refraining from explaining because I want you, the reader and potential viewer, to experience it for yourself) that affect Dixon in a way that many have criticized as attempting to redeem this very flawed character.
In my opinion, this film is not about “good guys” and “bad guys.” It’s about people.
We are presented with this character that many of us would not give the time to consider ever being friends with. He is vile, ignorant, bigoted and pretty much a scumbag. He is nowhere near the standing the audience attributes to Mildred, the pained mother who is seeking retribution for a miscarriage of justice. As the story unfolds, tactics are taken by both characters that go against what we were presented with in the beginning. A character we feel is justified goes over the edge and questions our support for them. A character we are adamantly against makes choices that end up having noble intentions. These tactics taken are not meant to make us change our mind about how we feel about these characters. McDonagh has not presented these moments to make us cheer on who we initially thought was the “bad guy” and now question who we thought was the “good guy.”
What he has done is simple: he has presented us humans. The reality of humanity. That we are all flawed beings; some much more than others. We realize that the person who seeks justice for her family will make decisions we do not agree with, going against our morality. We learn that even those we find disgusting and intolerable can make selfless choices meant to benefit others. We are not perfect. We are far from it. A good person can have a bad moment. A bad person can have a moment of redemption. McDonagh explains that perfectly in his writing and direction of this emotional story.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has scored seven Academy Award nominations, which include acting nods for McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson. Original Screenplay, Score, Editing and, of course, Best Picture round out the nods for a film that is heavily favored to win the evening’s top award. For the performances alone in this emotionally-charged story, this film is deserving of multiple viewings. This is easily Martin McDonagh’s finest piece of work. I highly recommend adding this film to your queue.