I love comedy, especially dark humor. When I watched the trailer for Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, I immediately knew that if they could manage to balance the comedy with drama, this would be an incredibly funny film. It is exactly as advertised while also combining an unconventional story with realistic, three-dimensional characters that steal your heart.
The film begins with Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) driving by three broken down billboards. As she drives, she stops to contemplate the shattered signs, a fierceness overtaking her. She drives into town and goes to the advertising company that owns the signs, asking to rent the signs for a year, giving the owner of the agency, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) $5000 for the first month’s rent. Mildred commissions the signs to say: “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” as we learn of her daughter Angela’s death seven months prior. The signs are Mildred’s way of waking up the police and making the Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) do something about her daughter’s death.
This causes ripples in the community. Willoughby is sympathetic to Mildred’s plight but feels the signs are unfair. His deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), incompetent and racist, becomes angry over Mildred’s actions. Her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) is depressed, angry, and embarrassed by his mother’s actions. But despite the uproar by everyone, including her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) and Dixon pushing back against what he feels his her attack on his authority, Mildred stands firm. She continues with her crusade, even while knowing that Sheriff Willoughby has pancreatic cancer. Her response, “Won’t be as effective after you croak.”
The film builds on this initial rage on Mildred’s part as she battles the town, finding unexpected allies along the way. The story turns in unexpected ways, twisting from what you think will happen to Willoughby, Dixon, and Mildred, handing you characters that are real and complex. While the film begins feeling very black and white, Mildred’s anger over her daughter’s death justifiable, it quickly bleeds into gray as you learn that Willoughby has done as much as he can to find her daughter’s killers and Mildred takes matters too far in her search for justice. The ending is messy, unresolved but is very real and true while developing and growing the characters.
What makes this film so engaging and compelling is the almost perfect balance between the humor and the drama. The jokes are crafted to go right to the edge of acceptable but not quite drop over. Quite a few of them are observations on society as a whole as when the preacher comes to visit Mildred to encourage her to leave the sheriff alone, hoping to appeal to her more sympathetic side. Instead, Mildred compares the church to the Bloods and the Crips, a gang preying on young boys and points out they’re all culpable. The drama is the other side of the coin, keeping you involved in the story but never boring you, allowing the characters to grow as both Mildred and Jason Dixon work through their anger issues. The writing shows tiny details, like Mildred’s clothes, almost a uniform as she combats the police or Jason Dixon’s softer side as he listens to lyrical music no one else can hear through his headphones. These kind of details build the believability of the characters and every seemingly frivolous detail is ultimately important to the character’s growth.
The actors are phenomenal. Frances McDormand is full of rage, a scowling, loss filled mother willing to take on the world but falling apart in solitary scenes. Sam Rockwell makes us dislike Jason Dixon but by the end of the film, flips the character around to someone we might even admire. Woody Harrelson is sweet and sensitive, insightful as Sheriff Willoughby. Even minor characters shine in this film. Lucas Hedges as Robbie is angry and yet shows a protective side toward his mother when she’s attacked by his father. John Hawkes is both edgy and funny as Charlie, Mildred’s ex. Peter Dinklage as a car salesman who helps Mildred because he’s sweet on her is adorable. Even Charlie’s young clueless girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving) is hilarious as she babbles at the most inopportune moments.
Edgy, surprising, and an exploration of the effects of rage, this film never quite takes you where you think it will. It ends in a twist I never saw and was completely about the redemption of the main characters. With extraordinary acting and a beautifully balanced blend of human realism and humorous commentary, this might just get awards. It will be well deserved.
5 stars ~~ Andrea Rittschof