I'm not certain we've earned Frances McDormand. She's one of those winter rose-rare talents you've been watching, perhaps unwittingly, since you were a child. Odds are you knew her before you had any real understanding of screencraft, any knowledge of what comes when a story is scripted to within an inch of its life, or the magic than can happen when one who comprehends their trade the same way Neo comprehended the Matrix hurls themselves headlong into a role. Time and again, we have seen her transform onscreen until the line between character and actor was no longer discernible. She has raw talent and peerless skill to spare. Her thirty year-plus body of work reads like a film undergrad's Top 10.
To that Top 10 we can now proudly add Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, the somewhat unassuming title to Martin McDonagh's (In Bruges, The Guard) new scathingly dark comedy-drama, and easily my favorite of his films to date. I will admit to feeling a little over-matched here. There is a lot to unpack in the 115 minutes of Billboards, a feat made all the more daunting by the fact that it plays like a house on fire, throwing only haymakers and pulling none as it weaves a story of outwardly inconsolable anger, a cascade of unpredictable escalations, and an equal if not greater number of frightening reprisals, one of which is straight out of Marathon Man.
Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a fed up and foul-mouthed, blue collar, takes-no-shit mother who goes on a one-woman warpath against the Ebbing Police Department, who has, in seven months' time, failed spectacularly to make an arrest or even drum up a suspect in the unspeakable rape, torture, and murder of her only daughter. To simultaneously rekindle local interest in the cold case and put Woody Harrelson's seemingly inept Sheriff Willoughby on blast, Mildred rents the three titular billboards on the edge of her depressed, rural burg, effectively rendering it impossible for the citizenry's concern over her child's fate to wain. The town's name is not a coincidence.
It's almost cliche to call someone's performance "fearless" nowadays. The word gets thrown around too much, like "genius" or "artisan." However, here, it's well-earned. McDormand gives her all in this portrayal of a woman and a mother who is equal parts rage and regret, both in control and veering wildly. She blames others yet is, herself, to blame. At times, it seems the whole world hates her, that world being a facsimile for the kind of allegedly forgotten red state "skip towns" of America so recently and violently thrust back into the national discourse, and will no doubt cause you to recall last year's similarly sardonic Hell or High Water.
But Mildred's aim isn't pity. In fact, as the film plays out, she offers you fewer and fewer reasons to sympathize with her. She is intentionally placed upon a recognizable, well-tread protagonist's altar. She is meant to be sided with, to have her grief and her increasingly unhealthy actions for dealing with that grief understood and condoned by a caring audience until such time that she squanders that good will and we are forced to say stop! Keep an eye peeled for the scene in the restaurant in which Peter Dinklage, who is not in this nearly enough for my liking, delivers one of the film's strongest indictments. In that moment, he is us. His sentiment is a wake-up call, arriving with wrecking ball force. It's okay to only be in a movie for seven minutes, especially when one of those minutes is as great as his last.
I want to talk about Woody Harrelson for a second, but I'm afraid to. I feel like anything I say about his Sheriff Bill Willoughby will only serve to undermine the beauty and the power of what the character means to Billboards. He is both everything you expect from the gruff, small town police chief archetype and none of it. McDormand is guaranteed an Oscar nomination for her work here, and while I'm not convinced Harrelson will receive a nod, he should. If this movie has a beating heart, it's his. If it has a moral North, he points to it.
I imagine it can be difficult to shine against such powerhouse stars. As Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg asked in The Social Network, "How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SATs?" Starring opposite Frances McDormand must, in some ways, be like showing up to race Usain Bolt. You know, at best, you're vying for Second Place. This should in no way undersell the brilliant and unrelenting performance Sam Rockwell gives to Three Billboards. As Ebbing Police Officer Jason Dixon, who has cultivated a reputation for abusing the town's Black citizens, Rockwell offers us a slow-witted, mentally unhinged, violent character in the throes of a power fantasy. He wears a badge and a gun, which in this town (and too much of America) means he can indulge in whatever sadistic behavior he elects with impunity. It's a story we've all lately become too familiar with.
He is frequently shown reading comic books, which offended me at first glance, considering the film wastes no time in establishing him as a well-known piece of shit. It may surprise you to learn not so long ago, Hollywood (particularly in the 50's) didn't think much of comics enthusiasts, and often considered any interest in such as a sign of depravity, of an unsound mind, of a cultural deviant. I erroneously viewed this as a mirror of that tired sentiment.
But then Billboards did what it does best. Without giving anything away, it should be noted that Rockwell's Dixon reads, among others, Mark Waid's Incorruptible, a comic about a villain who makes a go at learning how to be a superhero, to varying degrees of success. It's just a little clue to a small section of the audience, but one I was pleased to catch. Dixon's character arc is difficult to watch, at best, and showcase to several moments of downright cringe-worthy behavior. And it is by far one of Rockwell's most compelling roles. Expect a Best Supporting Actor nomination for him as well. He takes you by surprise in every scene, and reminds you of Joe Pesci's Tommy in Goodfellas, whom you found amusing but terrifying, engaging but almost never safe to be with or around.
In a moment straight from comic book lore, Dixon's life is suddenly, drastically, irrevocably changed, in effect setting him off on a new trajectory into the unknown. You'll be surprised, to say the least. You'll probably even find yourself conflicted. And if you're anything like me, you'll be unprepared for just how heartbreaking a simple glass of orange juice can be.
Now, up to this point, I've been very generous. I've lauded the actors for their portrayals, and the film for its narrative depth, complexity, and focus. I should add to the above that it is also impressively shot. I grew up in South Carolina, and while Ebbing, Missouri is not a real place, there is no aspect of it that doesn't remind me of home, warts and all. It's a kind of amalgamation of all those Anytowns tucked away behind the forested exits along America's highways. You've both never seen it before and seen it everywhere. It feels real, lived-in, but I can't say it is wholly convincing. Like Spinal Tap, you don't have to look hard to find that everything in Ebbing is dialed up to 11. Its characters, while certainly reminiscent of faces we've seen and voices we've heard, conduct themselves with hyperbolic frenzy. David Mamet would say, "They speak the English Language," perhaps not eloquently, but certainly, "as viciously as possible."
That said, as I was watching Billboards, I couldn't help but feel like the dialogue, the characters, and even the ever-escalating actions they were taking were so exaggerated, so overblown and farfetched, that it began to damage the film's realism and, I daresay, its credibility. And then I realized what was happening. As with everything else in the film, this was not an accident. This wasn't a mistake on the screenwriter's part, doubled-down on by the director (who are one in the same) because he simply didn't notice or care to notice. No, this was a deliberate choice. Ebbing, Missouri manages to encapsulate the look of all those aforementioned Anytowns and reflect the views of its many put-upon denizens, even if it has been super-sized for the silver screen, but it remains, as it always has, a fiction.
Ebbing is a kind of anti-Mayberry. Its characters are deconstructions or subversions of their black and white counterparts, some of them sincerely so, as with Woody Harrelson's Willoughby, others excessively so, like Sam Rockwell's Dixon. In identical fashion, Mayberry was also never a real place, only a Romanticized fictionalization of an era many people believe in their heart of hearts was real. But it never happened. At least, not the way they want to remember it happening. It's a fascinating and rare gift to see the modern day through eyes commonly only reserved for nostalgia. It's often a cynical lens that we look at this film through, but I'll be damned if that same cynicism doesn't walk hand in hand with a very clear message about hope for the future and the often hard-to-find truth that we are never quite as far from salvation as we feel. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a ferocious, unapologetic outing that burns screen time fuel like only a hungry fire can. It never lets go of you, and as of my writing this, it is my choice for Best Picture of the Year.
My Rating: 5 out of 5