Inspired by the violent, morally absorbing Southern Gothic works of Flannery O’Connor, British playwright Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) finally delivers on the film he was always meant to make with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; layering his usual absurd humor, sharply-pointed wit and sudden bursts of violence into a meditation on monumental losses, and what we opt to fill those empty spaces with.
The premise is beautifully simple: Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, incredible), seven months after her daughter’s murder launches a billboard campaign accusing the local police department of ineptitude, including a well-meaning Sherriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and a violent bigot (Sam Rockwell), and in the process kicks off an all-out local community war.
McDonagh complicates what might have otherwise been an overly simplistic diagnosis of South American hatred by illustrating the ease with which everyday cruelties are internalized (“it’s people of color torturing, actually”) and the rippling damages they inflict—Hayes’ quest is righteous, but her vengeful methods come into question when she can’t contain who’s getting hurt because of them, and why. Believe it or not the film’s closest companion emotionally is maybe John Wick, as this is ultimately also story of lashing out in times of pain and anger, leaving a wake of hurting, broken people in your rearview.
Ben Davis’ cinematography is quiet and elegant (hilariously contradicting the film’s characters) and the performances are uniformly excellent, of course: McDormand relishing every moment of destroying people on screen right down to the pronunciation (“culpable”), Harrelson doing the recent Harrelson thing of hiding sadness in his charisma and breaking your heart before you even know it, and Rockwell who has the most difficult job of humanizing the irredeemable, and revealing a new path forward for crushed, broken people.
Ultimately however it’s the nuance of McDonagh’s script, both in its deeply woven humor (nearly cackled when the burn victim starts lighting a cigarette) and how its silliness eventually organically sheds itself into deeply felt regret and forgiveness that takes this home—somehow, even in its final scenes, this remains funny while doing some of the most emotionally complex character work of the year. “We can decide along the way.”