There is a distinctive atmosphere that lines this film, starting with those three billboards planted firmly outside Ebbing, Missouri. The title tells us what to look for and what to look at, leading us into a world that is so solid it has to be real. But the exciting victory of the film is how it ensures every single character, minor or lead, is fleshed out.
While the harshest weight of the film lies on Frances McDormand, who plays the brutal and grieving force that is Mildred Hayes, there is undoubtedly a trio that draws our attention and takes center stage. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, who play Chief Bill Willoughby and Jason Dixon respectively, are both members of the police department, taking on distinct yet simultaneously forceful personalities.
Mildred’s grief, Chief Willoughby’s gravitasse, and Dixon’s alcoholic rage all make up for a clash that is constantly dynamic. These are characters being divided by multiple forces- of health and illness, of guilt and anger, of control and impulses. And yet, these are people who live in the same small town. These are people who know each other. It is a fully-fledged beast to delve into, giving us ample space for entertainment and emotional investment.
It is a worthy testament to their prowess in standing as pillars of the film that all three were nominated for Academy Awards for acting, and two of them won.
The Minor Players
The film also unfolds its plot points through its minor characters, from Red Welby, who lets Mildred put up the billboards, her ex-husband Charlie and his all-too young girlfriend Penelope to Jason’s mother, Momma Dixon, and Chief Willoughby’s wife, Anne.
No matter how short their screen time, all of these characters (and more) are anything but insignificant. While we are often used to paper-thin side characters who contribute nothing more than their required plot point, Three Billboards ensures that we feel every inch of the town and its players.
It comes in the moments of compassion in the hospital from Red to Jason, the man who put him in the hospital in the first place. We see it in the flashbacks of Angela, the fierce daughter who Mildred is raging for. It sucker punches us in empathy and grief through Anne Willoughby’s discovery of her husband’s suicide note. Through these characters, the film reminds Mildred and us that while her battle rages, life continues to go on unrelentlessly.
The Man Behind the Town
Due credit must be given to the man who penned the words and pulled the strings behind the camera- director and writer Martin McDonagh. What McDonagh does is delve deep into the atmosphere of his world. He is determined that we taste his creation, and he pulls out all the stops to ensure that this happens.
His depiction of the characters and the town makes such a three-dimensional experience feel effortless. It was indeed anything but. He manages to elevate the film beyond the story of justice after rape while sticking to that very plotline. It is the soul of the story that he is after, rather than the gory or graphic details. Despite never showing us Angela’s rape or murder, he sears the image of what it could have been through the ghosts in Mildred’s eyes. He takes his actors into a psyche so profoundly rooted in reality that it becomes the best of what fiction can be.
The film is nothing short of a grand sweep, set in the most humble of geographical settings. We cannot ignore its pull or honesty, not when every character, in every frame, reminds us of it.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a 2017 Drama film that stars Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson in the prominent roles. It is written and directed by Martin McDonagh.