Ebbing, Missouri is a small town with a small town mentality. The complacency, ignorance and general incompetence of its local law enforcement is put to the test when Mildred (Frances McDormand), the mother of a murder victim, pays to have three billboards put up on the highway directly calling the town’s local sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) out for the lack of arrests made. This shakes up the town considerably, in particular Willoughby and his deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who work to diffuse the situation and eventually try to turn their community against Mildred when she proves to be unrelenting.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like a topical movie if there ever was one. On top of the racial element frequently brought up in terms of the police’s corruption, the general lack of trust or fate in the system being in the interests of the people is quite palpable. There’s a serious cultural shift, and Three Billboards wishes to, and pardon the pun here, signpost that. This is an excellent deconstruction of the price of challenging a system, which is seen as an affront to common decency even if what you are doing is something people claim they desire.
This is easily one of the best cast movies I’ve seen in years. A lot has been said about Frances McDormand’s performance, and I’m still not sure it’s enough. She’s an absolute hero of this modern day folk tale-acerbic and defiant, but in way over her head and not having the ability to realise when she’s gone too far. Also commendable are the performances of Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, making the impossible possible by having me get emotionally invested in the story of racist cops. Neither are good people, but they feel so real and well realised, and I love the arc that Dixon in particular goes through. Other noteworthy performances come from Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Abbie Cornish and Peter Dinklage.
Much is to be said about the direction from Martin McDonagh, who continues to be the master of bleak black comedy. His ability to make you care about despicable people is rarely mastered, and the way information is revealed in this film and parsed out is nothing short of excellent filmmaking. I love the reveal of the billboards in particular, or how a certain plot twist is pulled off. It’s a legitimately surprising story that keeps you wrapped up in wondering exactly where it’s going to go.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri manages to find the balance of that very wavy tightrope of being both topical and timeless. Even if you’re not on board with connecting to its more sociopolitical themes, you can just get wrapped up in a great crime comedy-drama with an extremely lovable cast and achingly sympathetic subject matter. It’s morose and bleak, and while it strains credulity in certain places, it’s an excellent study of a town forced to face its privileges and set ways by a woman who can only feel rage being punished for demanding justice.