Anger is an emotion I rarely revel in, save for two scenarios – in the car with my family or during a Seahawks game at any given point and time during a game. Anyone who indulges on a regular basis knows the power of anger, the all-consuming, overwhelming nature of it. For most of us however, this subsides with time and in my case, is usually followed by a shame spiral as I release my can of Rainier from a Russell Wilson induced vice grip.
Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri asks the simple question, what if you were all consumed by anger and unable to let go? Mildred Hayes (Francis McDormand) – McDonagh’s protagonist with a seriously justified mean streak – is our guinea pig to find the answer. It’s been seven months since Mildred’s daughter was raped, murdered and burned. She’s ice cold from the trauma and spends her days working at a trinket shop in town and driving her son to and from school.
One not-particularly special day Mildred stops at three unkempt billboards just below her home. She devises a simple plan – purchase those three billboards for $5,000 a month to ask the simple question – my daughter is dead, why have the police found nothing? The billboards are painted all red with stark black letters – although she worries no one may see them as they are on a road by passed by the highways that you only get to if you’re lost or retarded.
Quickly though Mildred gets the eyes and ears of local police deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) – a dolt who is drunk as a skunk 90% of his life. Dixon has a reputation for accosting the black community and torturing them when he deems necessary – but this hits him harder. How dare a citizen question the authority of his PBR-stained badge?
He alerts police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) of the billboards and as soon as he’s heard what’s on them he knows exactly what he’s up against. Willoughby is a kind, backwoods man with a more reasonable disposition than Dixon and his counterparts but not without his prejudice either. He’s sympathetic to Mildred and reaches out to her often to try and explain the situation – of course she’s having none of it.
What McDonagh (Seven Psycopaths, In Bruge) has crafted is a searingly funny and vicious examination of small town, rural America. These are tough towns who have been crushed by the economy but live with many of the same prejudice and hatred of their ancestors – maybe just simmering a bit underneath. He uses Mildred as a conduit for change. She speaks truth to power – these policemen abuse it daily in the small town of Ebbing for their personal gain. That said, these men are no better off than the citizens they protect, indulging in drugs and alcohol at a rate greater than the community they serve.
Rockwell is our vessel into the minds of these police officers. His performance is as good as he’s ever been, torn between his deep seeded ignorance and loyalty to his chief. McDormand will be receiving nomination after nomination for her performance as Mildred too, the antithesis of Rockwell’s Dickson. We root for her even as she dives deeper into an anger-fueled depression that threatens to consume her. You hope she mends relationships with her many adversaries including her ex-husband (a terrifying John Hawkes) or the dwarf at the bar that just wants to ask her out (a randy Peter Dinklage.)
But mostly you want Mildred to find peace and a sliver of redemption. I’m sure it’s next to impossible to bury a child, but to smile at the well-wishers for months and years to come sounds unbearable.