Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri squares off against the one true dominant American religion—Instagram inspirational quotations—with a shotgun loaded with curse-word buckshot and genuine honesty, fired by the new Divine Queen of Righteous Indignation, Frances McDormand. Western narratives are near-universally peppered with a fetishization of forgiveness, a quasi-subliminal message that nothing is more holy than exonerating abhorrent trespassers and forgetting the past. A nation built by slaves on a Native American burial ground in particular requires that the glory of absolution be built into every fiction possible. Three Billboards—a wildly hilarious, cripplingly emotionally dense meditation on any number of sins—explicitly calls bullshit and instead demands reflection and accountability, immediately placing it among the year’s very best films.
The less concrete details known before watching McDonagh’s latest beautifully tonally schizophrenic stampede of memorable characters, the better. Not because of some plot-heavy twist and shout, but because Three Billboards gives you what you need to know precisely when you should know it. So, until you—please, please, please—see it, just know that McDormand plays Mildred, a formerly abused wife whose daughter was murdered, and she’s right pissed that nobody has caught her killer over the last year. So she takes out an ad that spans the length of the film’s title, pointedly asking Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) why no progress has been made.
Mildred has some good theories about the stalled investigation, first and foremost being the preoccupation with homophobia and violent racism by the local police force, most notably by Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Like a horrifyingly-irresponsible-New-York-Times-piece-humanizing-a-Nazi made flesh, Dixon is a drunk, bigoted shitbag who is seen as “a good guy, deep down” by white people in positions of authority who are, arguably, even more culpable for the way things are. He and Mildred orbit each other more often than they collide, but if you make the calculations, you can predict when that gravitational kindness will run out. Again, to say more is to deprive unsuspecting audiences of a script that pivots, rises and falls in ways that spits on gimmicks and celebrates “showing over telling.”
In a year that has finally deigned to grant publicity to the vile, secret truths women have known since the beginning, Mildred is a more fitting superhero than Wonder Woman. She is angry. Hell, she is anger itself, with enough fire and fury for every prick, be they police or priest. For their parts, Rockwell and Harrelson endow their characters not with charismatic fodder for forgiveness, but with the somber understanding that some shit you don’t—and can’t—ever make right; you just own it, live with it and, eventually, die with it.
As funny as it is poignant, as complicated as it is impeccably crafted, Three Billboards is everything that makes movies the premiere modern art form. Honestly, this review has yanked out only a couple of the complex thematic fibers wound into an impossibly tight knot by McDonagh. Nothing is more satisfying than a film that requires time and brain-space to carefully untangle, continually rewarding those who pull the threads.
Grade = A+