‘I’ ON CULTURE
The new movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the best films I have seen in a long time. For a change, we have a good, tough drama that is both engrossing and powerful. This could be one that wins important awards. It focuses on rage, on family, on frustration. Writer/director Martin McDonagh has given us a movie that reeks with anger and power.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is furious that the police in her town have not solved the rape and murder of her daughter after more than six months. She pays for three billboards to be put up on the road going into town. They say, “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests,” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is dying from pancreatic cancer, wants desperately to solve the crime but is frustrated because there are almost no useful clues. There is DNA, but no match can be made anywhere in the United States, and there are too few other clues.
The town is split. Everyone feels terrible for Mildred, but they also know of the chief’s impending death. His top deputy, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), does not make the situation better as he rampages around trying to get the billboards taken down.
There is an air of frustration everywhere. Mildred knows Willoughby’s condition but is too angry for any compassion. She looks upon her actions as a form of pressure. Things get very bad, and there are many twists and turns. She is not a nice person, and the audience recognizes it even as we sympathize with her fury.
At Willoughby’s death, he leaves three letters. One to his wife is filled with love. The second, to Mildred, stresses his sorrow at not solving the crime. The last, and perhaps most important, is to Dixon, telling him that the one thing that holds him back is his inability to love. Dixon, immediately thereafter, performs a sacrificial act.
There is no pat ending here. People change. Mildred is an engrossingly complex woman. At times, you feel horribly sorry for her, and at others she seems the villain. She is profane and unforgiving of others. Her speech to a visiting priest who has come more to get the billboards down than to comfort her is hilarious and nasty. Even she does not seem sure of where she stands.
Her ex-husband (John Hawkes) is living with a teenage girl. Her son (Lucas Hedges) is humiliated by her actions. And both cast some blame on her for the death of the daughter, who was walking alone on a road because she had refused use of the car. The story is the type that great Greek tragedy was made of, but the Greeks generally avoided contradictions within characters.
The acting is incredible. McDormand owns the part of Mildred. There were times when I fully emphasized with her. Who wouldn’t be furious when a child is horribly killed? Yet her actions go so far beyond decency, are so horrendous, that she would in other circumstances be the villain. Rockwell creates another of his complex, crazy portraits.
Dixon is a nasty man, a bully using his badge as a form of shield to protect his actions. And suddenly he becomes a hero even if no one else is aware of it. Harrelson is also excellent as the chief. He imbues the man with an enormous decency. Hedges is very good as the son, tormented not only by the past but by his mother’s actions and public reaction to them.
I liked Abbie Cornish as the chief’s wife. It was not a large part, but she had a few really strong emotional scenes. Hawkes was a useful comic relief, and Peter Dinklage had a few good scenes as a car salesman who briefly befriends Mildred and gives a wonderful soliloquy after a really bad date.
This is one of the best, most absorbing films I have seen in a really long time. I would be surprised if there were not a lot of Oscar nominations in its future and, perhaps, a few wins. I often rant about poor scripts; this one is brilliant. And the performances are incredibly strong.
It is not an easy movie, although there are bits of humor in it. But this is definitely one picture to see.