You don’t have to wait long to see the billboards of the title. There they are, right in the opening moments. They’re old and decrepit, with remnants of ads that once promoted the town of Ebbing, and the lonely road they’re at the side of is hardly used anymore, since the freeway came through.
But Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has a special interest in them. She pays a visit to the Ebbing Advertising Company, asking what it would cost to rent all three for a year. Not that she really cares; she’s on a mission, and plastering something up on those billboards is the backbone of it.
Again, very little time goes by before we get to see her plan in action. Actually, it’s a guy named Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a local cop who has a bad temper that’s often pushed up a notch when he’s being a bad drunk, who sees it first. Driving down that road at night, he notices some workers filling the billboards with bright red posters, each featuring large black letters. If you were driving toward them, you would see them spell out a message. The first reads “RAPED WHILE DYING,” the second, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?” the third, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”
Like the billboards and what’s on them, most of the film’s plot points aren’t kept under wraps. We learn very soon that Mildred’s daughter, Angela, was abducted, raped, and murdered seven months earlier, and that though she’s waited patiently for the police to do their work, not one clue has turned up. Now, angry, weary, beyond grief, and determined to make herself heard, she’s decided to act.
Willoughby? That would be the small-town sheriff (Woody Harrelson) at whom she’s aiming the first flourishes of her campaign. He seems to be a good but frustrated cop, and it’s suggested that he’s had the same conversation with Mildred – “We have no eye witnesses, there’s no DNA match” many times. If she heard it before, she’s not listening now, even though he considers the ire she and her billboards are sending his way to be unfair.
But it’s Mildred who’s unpopular around town. Because no one can feel what she’s feeling, no one can understand what she’s truly going through. Neither does any of them know that the billboards are only the first part of her strategy.
This is a very dark and sometimes violent movie, but like the two that writer-director Martin McDonagh made before it – “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths” – it’s got a crackling script, a story with unexpected turns, and all sorts of small, funny bits to counterbalance its seriousness. There’s, for instance, the introduction of Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), who’s referred to in the same breath as an ex-cop and an ex-wife beater, who shows up with his bubble-headed 19-year-old girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving). There’s also the hard-drinking James (Peter Dinklage), who has no problem with anyone calling him the town midget, and has developed a kind of crush on Mildred. One of the funniest (and at the same time most squirm-inducing) scenes involves Mildred proving that she’s not going to take any guff from her vengeful dentist.
Another thing about McDonagh’s films is that he gets sterling work out of his actors. Both Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson were nominated for Golden Globes for “In Bruges” (Farrell won), and the entire cast of “Seven Psychopaths” nabbed a Best Ensemble award from the Boston Society of Film Critics.
In “Three Billboards,” Harrelson is funny, thoughtful, and quite moving; Rockwell shows a couple sides of himself that haven’t been seen before; and McDormand, the heart and soul of the film, successfully takes on the juiciest role she’s had since “Fargo,” adding a razor-sharp edge to her performance.
The open ending will undoubtedly leave some viewers unsatisfied, but will get an equal amount of them thinking about the existence of, the meaning of, the importance of, justice.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh
With Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell