Seven months after her daughter was raped and brutally murdered, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), frustrated with the lack of progress by the police department, decides to rent out three billboards on a rarely used road, to put up a message demanding answers. The billboards cause a considerable stir in the small town where Mildred lives, but she refuses to back down from her crusade for the truth.
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has already scooped Audience Awards at film festivals around the world, as well as the gong for Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival. The story is one of love and loss, and although the story has strong messages and some dark laughs throughout, there are significant problems throughout the film that diminish its considerable impact.
Frances McDormand has never been better in the leading role as Mildred. Mildred has a gruff and abrasive exterior, but McDormand also makes Mildred a character bereft and grieving after the death of her daughter; a character so caught up in her own pain that she often overlooks other peoples’. Woody Harrelson plays Chief Willoughby, the person mentioned by name in Mildred’s billboards, and makes the character a multilayered one; a man capable of great profanity and sternness, who has capability for great insight and kindness. Sam Rockwell plays dim-witted police officer Dixon, and brings much of the comedy to the film, but is stymied by the script changes that happen almost too quickly. The rest of the cast features Peter Dinklage, Kerry Condon, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek, Sandy Martin, John Hawkes and Caleb Landry-Jones.
Martin McDonagh’s screenplay is the story of grief, how it manifests so strongly, and how a person grieving can often show no consideration for the people around them. It is also a revenge tale, and one of unexpected kindness. There is great strength and subtle observation throughout the film, however, this all manages to fall apart in the final act when McDonagh seems to be so desperately searching for a resolution that he forgets the world, and characters that he has created thus far. In fact, the final few moments of the film feel so alien from what has gone before that it is hard to resolve them into the same story.
As director, McDonagh has coaxed strong performances from his cast, and obviously has fun in populating his world with off beat and strange characters. The cast are all strong in their roles and, for the most part, their characters feel real and relatable, but it is in that tricky final act where characters suddenly change, that is hard to come to terms with. The film is well paced and often beautifully insightful, and it is enjoyable to go on the meandering journey with the characters, but it is in trying to find an ending that McDonagh’s pacing suddenly picks up speed and seems to be galloping toward a finish, without a resolution in sight.
In all, Martin McDonagh has created a real, believable and sometimes frightening world in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, but he seems to be having so much un with the chracters that he forgets to wrap the story up in a satisfying way. The pacing is mostly strong and the cast are all wonderful, with special mentions to McDormand and Peter Dinklage in his small but impactful role, but there is a hole in the heart of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri that is hard to ignore.