The United States is a country of worrying extremes in so many ways, and in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) confronts these shortcomings in typically forthright fashion. He brings his abrasive and snappish tone to middle America, shining a light on the iniquities of this broken society.
The imperious Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, furious at the lack of investigative progress from the Ebbing P.D. after her daughter’s rape and murder months earlier. She rents the three titular hoardings to demand action from the police and their beleaguered chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). In due course, action does indeed follow, at times violently and with a constant overtone of cynical resignation. As Mildred seeks vindication and closure, she encourages upheaval in the public life of this nowhere town.
McDormand is superb, fury bubbling in plain view, and as her anger rises so too does her inability to totally convince herself that the course of action she’s chosen is right. Her sense of moral superiority compared to the scum she sees around her is ironclad, but superiority does not necessarily mean righteousness. Her path towards a perverted form of justice drags other in to join her tumult, Harrelson’s cancer-ridden police chief prominent among them.
He is seeking closure too, and is perhaps the only individual to come close to achieving it, with an act of necessary solitude that further alienates the rest of the cast. His protégé of sorts is Sam Rockwell’s witless Jason, a junior cop, suspected racist and certain buffoon whose part in Mildred’s tragedy seems unclear. His cartoonish attempts to make detective move steadily from the comic to the tragic and pitiable, to match the film’s mood as a whole.
Three Billboards presents many of the ills America suffers – cruel and violent misogyny, open racism and crippling, inescapable poverty. It does not always offer deep insight on these topics, but it is perhaps enough to portray them unflinchingly, given the stateside habit of patriotic idealisation. When Mildred lashes out with a verbal flagellation of her local priest the indiscriminate nature of her rage (and McDonagh’s) is clear, yet the fact that there is so much injustice to rage at nonetheless causes us to rally to her.
For a film that centres on an unbearable human tragedy, Three Billboards does not veer into the sentimental. We wince, we cringe and we suffer as Mildred, Jason and others make bungling attempts to move on, but we are not edged into emotional depths manipulatively, and this is an impressive feat of restraint. In this it is unlike, though not essentially superior to, In Bruges, where the fate of our protagonist is central to viewers’ involvement with the film.
As McDonagh strides towards the film’s close, he tempts viewers with a return to convention – for a period the plot stops twisting, and begins conforming. Leads are followed and yield results, and a resolution hoves into sight in the near-distance. But, as we know it must, the ever-entertaining script comes to life and bucks away from this unsatisfying mirage at the last, leaving us with an open and immeasurably more satisfying conclusion as a result.
Three Billboards succeeds in its attempts to impress on us the traumas that tragedy can inflict, and more so in its portrayal of rural American futility. That its portraits nonetheless feel occasionally cold is perhaps a result of McDonagh’s individualities – his voice is brash and entertaining yet sometimes semi-real in its sense of authenticity. So far this has not diminished his films, and it will be curious to see if it ever does.