Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
If it were possible to name the dominant emotion swirling around the world today it would be anger. Its many causes include social inequality, political instability, and global brinkmanship, all of which create a collective sense of helplessness due to events and systems over which we have no control. Any film that gives expression to this anger is cathartic, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) hits this mark right from the outset.
Seven months after the rape and murder of Angela Hayes, her mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) is ready to explode. Local police investigations have stalled, she is not getting any updates, and she believes that much more could be done. She rents three neglected billboards and plasters three simple messages against blood-red backgrounds: “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests”; and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”. The shocked town is instantly divided into those sympathetic to Mildred’s plight and those supportive of terminally ill Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Police are outraged, national media get involved, and Mildred’s son and former husband try to talk her out of her protest. Events spiral out of control: there are outbursts of police racism, homophobia, bashings, arson, a suicide, as well as community outpouring of sympathy for Willoughby and blame for Mildred. Undeterred and hell bent on revenge, she sets a course into nihilism without regard for the consequences.
Not since Network (1978) when enraged Peter Finch screamed “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” has a film penetrated the global zeitgeist with such forensic accuracy. When Mildred lets loose, it feels good and right. McDormand’s powerhouse feminist performance makes this her film: no other contemporary actress does cold anger like she can and still offer a warm vulnerability to make us care. Harrelson is a complex opposite: reasonable, wounded, and compassionate. His likeability is the film’s greatest complication: while we share Mildred’s anger we also want to quarantine Willoughby, especially when we meet his beautiful wife and daughters.
Three Billboards is telling us that to feel human we sometimes must do extreme things. Whether you accept that message or not, this film offers a safety valve for anyone who feels crushed by the system. Labelling it a ‘black comedy’ is a loose fit for a film full of surprises where most of the humour is found in lightning fast one-liners laced with multiple F-bombs. The blackness lies in the moral ambiguity of Mildred’s behaviour: she is channelling eye-for-an-eye justice and it matters little if the wrong person pays. Whatever you make of it, this is a gripping film that you are unlikely to forget soon.
Director: Martin McDonagh
Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell