Martin McDonagh has always had a knack for finding humor in darkness and drawing out poignancy through comedy. The Irish writer/director has made two acid-tongued dark comedies with “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths.” Now, he has made another, with “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” One might be forgiven for thinking that he’s just repeating himself. However, “Three Billboards” is actually one of his most effective and insightful films yet. And it’s funny as hell, too.
The film stars Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a mother who lost her daughter to an unsolved murder/rape. In response to the police’s perceived lack of effort in finding the perpetrator, she takes out three billboards to call out the sheriff (Woody Harrelson) for his negligence. Right from the beginning, I thought that my loyalties were clear. But McDonagh doesn’t go for the easy emotions. He knows that achieving simple catharsis isn’t as impactful as tackling the messy realities of life. And so the plot of Three Billboards complicates, leaving us sympathizing with characters we thought we hated while also delving into the darker aspects of characters that we initially were rooting for. In its moral greyness, Three Billboards ceases being a simplistic, preachy “social issues” movie. Instead, it becomes a film that actually stands as a powerful and accurate reflection of society today.
McDonagh has a unique writing style that makes him strangely suited for films that tackle big subjects. Never one to shy away from a good joke, McDonagh’s dialogue is always sharp and darkly funny, constantly testing the bounds of offensiveness.
But the most interesting aspect of this style of writing is when moments of emotion and poignancy manage to peek through the acerbic one-liners. Moments like when a violent, racist cop like Dixon (Sam Rockwell, in the performance of a lifetime) uses the phrase “people of color” in order to look progressive. Or when Mildred bemoans the fact that she doesn’t have any food for a passing deer aside from Doritos, which would be too pointy and probably kill it. “Three Billboards” is full of strangely poignant moments like these that almost sneak up on you when you least suspect them to.
McDonagh’s work usually receives surface level comparisons with the films of Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers, but it’s his distinct handling of complex tonal shifts that sets him apart. Despite starting out as a playwright, McDonagh finds his skills as a visual director improving tremendously, filming “Three Billboards” with a style that is as once epic as it is poetic, recalling the westerns of John Ford. The visuals reclaim the American Midwest’s reputation as a mythical stomping ground for heroes and villains.
There’s a specific scene in this film that really stuck with me. It involved Sheriff Willoughby, recently diagnosed with cancer, bitterly arguing with Mildred about her billboards. Up until this point, we have only seen Mildred as a single-minded, tough, and sharp-tongued woman not given to mushiness and sympathy. In the middle of the argument, Willoughby suddenly coughs up blood on Mildred’s face. My first thought was that Mildred would respond with sarcasm or anger. But what surprised me was that her first response was that of empathy. At the end of the day, this seems to be the message of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Anger is a powerful catalyst and an important part of our lives that shouldn’t be ignored. But empathy is a longer lasting solution that can affect anyone, from grieving mothers to racist cops, to a whole town going mad.