In keeping with writer and director Martin McDonagh’s taste for fastidiously literal film titles (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is about exactly that. The opening sequence lingers longingly on the three decrepit billboards; soon they will be rented by Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) in order to draw attention to the floundering police investigation into the murder of her daughter Angela. Her decision is the breakneck, blackly comic plot’s starter pistol, igniting a reaction in her fellow townspeople that ranges from mild disapproval to incandescent fury.
Three Billboards is staggeringly entertaining – its script performs a series of hairpin turns with a mastery that leaves you agog. McDonagh has long coaxed comedy from the friction between the idiotic, the unthinkably painful and the banal. But in this scorching, luminous tragicomedy, the sadness is sadder, the jokes more outrageous, and the space between the two smaller. A highly amusing exchange between police chief Willoughby and his imbecilic colleague Dixon (Sam Rockwell) ends with a brutal jump cut that leaves you still grinning as a photograph of Angela’s burnt corpse flashes up. Later, McDonagh has you still sobbing from a previous plot development during a shot of Dixon singing along cluelessly to Abba’s Chiquitita. It’s a film designed to make you feel before you think.
Not all those feelings are nice ones, however, and McDonagh’s film has suffered a bigger backlash than the rest of the best picture nominees put together. The criticism centres partly on the Peter Dinklage character, whose dwarfism is a frequent catalyst for humour, as well as what has been perceived as a redemption arc for Dixon, who we are lead to believe has tortured a black man in custody, and is treated by the film with both derision and affection. McDonagh has responded, contesting the idea that Dixon is redeemed and describing his film as “deliberately messy and difficult”.
Three Billboards is not a medieval morality play: it’s an unblinking depiction of (largely) white working-class America. As with unblinking depictions of anywhere, it contains unsavoury things, but it’s not in the business of simplifying or sanitising reality, or of sorting it into right and wrong. In a society that is creeping towards social media-policed moral absolutism, it preserves fiction’s right to nuance and complexity, to portray characters who are bad, but whose humanity extends beyond their wrongness.
A slightly thornier issue is the humour derived from this cruelty. But Three Billboards is the polar opposite of the mindless Frat Pack fare its jokes sometimes resemble. McDonagh has spent his career making people laugh at things that are not amusing – mainly physical violence, but also the violence of language – and then forcing them to question why they have been entertained.
That question comes up a lot in Three Billboards, because it is scrupulously funny. Rockwell’s Dixon is a comic masterpiece in the most holistic sense: his walk is funny, his hair is funny, his pet (a tortoise) is funny. He even manages to be funny when he is completely mummified in a hospital bed. More impressive, however, is how funny Mildred is, despite her raving grief being literally writ large on three massive billboards.
McDormand reportedly based her character on John Wayne, and she does stride around this contemporary western battle-ready in a blue boiler suit. But she is greater than the impassive, all-knowing heroes of yore. In conversation, she gravitates towards the unsayable. She is silly and playful. She is fierce, but kindness continually ripples across her surface. After Willoughby coughs a spray of blood on to her forehead during an interrogation, she switches from boisterous repartee to motherly soothing in the blink of an eye. Seconds after her ex-husband Charlie chokes her in her kitchen, she is tenderly comforting him about their daughter’s death.
Instead, the closest thing the film has to an all-knowing hero is Willoughby, played with perfect verve by Woody Harrelson. And even he can’t find the person responsible for Angela’s murder. In this sense the Three Billboards universe is one of familiar chaos, a place where unspeakable crimes receive no comeuppance – yet the film is a triumph because it tempers devastation with hope, the glow of forgiveness eventually shining through the mayhem. What really makes Three Billboards such a deserving winner, however, is how McDonagh does this while studiously avoiding po-faced preachiness. It’s telling that the resounding wisdom of the film – that “anger only begets more anger” – is imparted by the physically abusive Charlie, who is quoting his clownish 19-year-old girlfriend Penelope. She read it on a bookmark.