Three Billboards is genius… heartbreaking and sickly funny genius.
People often steer clear of critical analysis of their favourite media because they believe explanation destroys art. Personally, I have never subscribed to this. There can be brilliant joy in metaphorically ripping apart television shows, paintings on walls, thick novels, and big screen cinema. You are beautiful in your whole and final product, but you are nothing more than the sum of your carefully created parts. That is what I have always thought. This brings me to Martin McDonagh’s neo-western drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
The moment Meredith, Sheree, and I stepped out of the barely-lit cinema and onto the sticky carpeted hallway floor, I was ranting. We all were. There are so, so many things about this film that fuel the fires of intellectual conversation. “You could write a whole essay about it,” Sheree said. And my dudes, she’s not wrong. Yet, here I sit, more than a little apprehensive about writing a review. How can anything I write, with my incredibly limited mastery of the English language, possible encapsulate this motherfucking film?!
Three Billboards is genius… heartbreaking and sickly funny genius. That much I feel confident in saying. Anything else… well… let me go slow. Hold my hand. Tell me it’s gonna be alright. This film kinda fucked me up, you know?
Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a mother of two, grieving the loss of one. Her daughter Angela was raped and killed, and with no leads, an arrest is yet to be made. Mildred’s guilt, her rage, and her bitter and brutal attempts to find justice are at the centre of the film. To prompt action by the local police department, Mildred rents three billboards that demand, at the very least, attention. Chief Willoughby (a stern but warm Woody Harrelson) is who is most ‘called out’ by the billboards, but the effects of their arrival reverberate through the entire town, much like Angela’s death did seven months prior.
The plot alone is the best type of crime film. Although yes, we do get the gory details of Angela’s death, they aren’t for shock value and they are not given at the loss of the character’s dignity. Three Billboards isn’t really about (the) crime, it is about the painful and long lasting emotional impact and social decay surrounding crime. Surrounding violence. Anger and rage. Justice and revenge and equality. The plot is a vehicle that delivers a very clear message, one echoed by each of our characters by the end of the film. Being hurt makes us angry, and being angry can make us violent, and violence begets violence, but what the fuck are we meant to do to stop that?
The narrative’s success depends on the quality of acting, and I cannot even begin to express how brilliant acted this film is. McDormand and Harrelson completely embody their characters; McDormand scoring herself a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Angela’s little brother Robbie is played with quiet sadness and overt resentfulness by Lucas Hedges. Officer Dixon, who provides both a majority the comedic ‘relief’ and the film’s darkest moments, is brought to life disturbingly well by Sam Rockwell (who you may remember from the iconic dance scene in Charlie’s Angels, 2000); Rockwell won a Globe too. You know how people talk about characters being neither good or bad? About how as humans, we are entirely capable of being simultaneously monsters and angels? Dixon is quintessentially that. You’ll either love to hate him or hate to love him.
Caleb Landry Jones gets his own paragraph. He plays Red Welby, the advertising agent that rents the billboards out. He is an interesting character because it’s not clear where his allegiance lies. Is he renting them out for the money? Does he feel for Mildred’s plight? Throughout the film Welby provides evidence for both. Again, this shows the duality of human nature. Jones embeds a charming weirdness in Welby that makes him loveable, and it is the spectacular performances of secondary characters like him that make the entire film feel so real. And a side note, you may recognise Jones as the deranged brother from Get Out, 2017.
The authenticity of the characters begins with a good script, with good writing. Three Billboards, more specifically McDonagh himself, won the Golden Globe for best screenplay. And fuck me, is it well deserved. I’ve never (ever) seen a film that has used so many racial and homophobic slurs in a context that doesn’t make me feel sick or cringe. The film is a lesson in how to use language for effect.
Like the next pop culture and media saturated nerd, I love a quotable film. My friends, I have found a pot of fucking gold. Here are some examples completely out of context (no spoilers):
“It’s ‘person of colour’ torturing business, these days.”
The entirety of Mildred’s “You joined the gang. You’re culpable.” monologue
“A lady with a funny eye… and a fat dentist.”
“I’m going to look for cheesy things.”
“I read it! On a bookmark.”
“If I had some food I’d give it to you, all I’ve got is some Doritos and they might kill you. They’re kind of pointy.”
As our cast of characters and their adventures in being sad and angry and hurt and misguided are the focus, the backdrops and cinematography are all gorgeous but understated. The bright red of the billboards is juxtaposed to pretty meadows, rolling hills, and old fashion town charm. The score and soundtrack are similarly mutated and serve to enhance mood. It’s all the cherry on the cake. The Beerenburg tomato sauce on the chips.
There are only three faults of the film that are immediately obvious to me. Perhaps if I watched it again (which I don’t plan on doing, lol) there would be more. More likely, if I read reviews written by more cultured and smarter people than me I would find things to be critical of. There is no use in being negative just for the sake of it though, yeah? Still… Willoughby’s wife Anne, portrayed by Abbie Cornish, is… look, I don’t even know. I found her accent to be unstable and distracting. Her general demeanour was a bit aloof too. Meredith and Sheree disagreed however, and liked her. Secondly, there is one scene that takes place in a hospital room that is just highly illogical in regards to the combination of people in the room. That will annoy me forever and a day, honestly. Lastly, most importantly, Dixon is set up as a bigot, to put it lightly. In particular, there is reference from the beginning of the film to the fact that he “tortured” a Black person in custody. Look, I’m a White girl and my opinion on this doesn’t really matter. I am simply adding to this to my review because it needs to be noted and not ignored, not brushed over. Dixon’s redemption arc isn’t perfect. He isn’t redeemed. However, how comfortable should an audience be with him being, in any way, likeable or forgiven? Is the point of the film to make us uncomfortable with that? Like I said before, Three Billboards is about the grey areas, the in-between states, the duality. I don’t have the answers. The question is too big to really discuss here, but keep it in mind.
Three Billboards very much feels like a Martin McDonagh film. It has the punchy comedy of In Bruges, 2008, and Seven Psychopaths, 2012, and the same nihilistic undertones. It goes further than those, however, with better social commentary and a more sophisticated ability to harness human experience and emotion into an accessible narrative and easy to emphasise with characters. It really does warrant its Golden Globe win for Best Picture. Tbh though, I would’ve been alright with the sexy fish man movie winning too. Anything but that fucking creepy boy-Lolita paedophile film.