Traditional Westerns have been a staple of Hollywood since the beginning. There’s something inherent in the storytelling style that just seems to make for good cinema. While recent Tarantino films like Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight embody the character of their predecessors, there is a new wave of contemporary western cinema adopting the narrative style. Taylor Sheridan’s Hell or High Water and HBO’s popular show, Westworld were two excellent examples in 2016. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of these films. From the score down to the plot, there are themes of revenge, duty and vigilante justice. However, this is really a story of redemption with some poignant and cutting commentary on the relationship between the police and the civilians they are supposed to serve and protect.
Writer/Director Martin McDonough (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) just has this style of writing which goes splendidly with his wicked sense of humor. He never fails to deliver sharp and intellectual vulgarity in his scripts and this was no different. Sure, maybe throwing the “C” word around isn’t exactly your cup of tea, but it works in context of the dialogue between these characters. Absent from much of modern cinema, these roles are well layered with interesting arcs so there is an investment on the part of the audience, which makes the dialogue feel much more at home rather than outright abrasive. The screenplay is remarkably well paced, so the nearly two-hour journey motors right along without any wasted dialogue bogging things down. Once again, McDonough has shown he has a keen eye for talent when it comes to directing his actors. His investment in them is rewarded with very powerful performances that each have the ability to dominate the screen and take over the film completely in certain scenes. This script deserves to be in the conversation for Best Original Screenplay if it doesn’t make him the favorite to win the award outright. His work behind the camera is of top quality as well and McDonough should be considered for Best Director as well. Regardless of the year end awards shows, I’m very excited to see what he does next.
The meat of this film is centered around (coincidentally) three different and equally dynamic performances. Frances McDormand does a spectacular job out front as Mildred Hayes, a mother trying desperately to get to the bottom of her daughter’s murder…her mask of vigilante occasionally slipping to reveal the broken and tormented soul of a mother still riddled with inescapable guilt. Even while carrying it all, she’s still hilarious many times throughout the film. And it’s her ability to exist simultaneously in the worlds of both comedy and tragedy, which is easier than it looks and surprisingly rare, that’s a sign of high level mastery of her craft. Through the intensity and sense of humor, she remains a woman trapped by her tragedy. It was so refreshing to see her out in front once again where she can truly showcase her unique talent, because it’s been far too long. At this point, it would be exceedingly difficult to say she hasn’t leapfrogged the rest of the pack to take the lead as the favorite for Best Actress.
Woody Harrelson was equally as good playing the police chief responsible, more or less, for the lack of convictions brought forth in the rape/murder case of Mildred’s daughter, which is the catalyst for the entire plot. Like McDormand, he has a spectacular sense of humor tempered by a very underrated dramatic repertoire which he utilizes marvellously. His character, Chief Willoughby, is an honorable man facing the end of his road while attempting to right a wrong he’s not responsible for…a familiar role in westerns, but one Harrelson slips into easily. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him positioned for best supporting actor at year’s end.
Sam Rockwell turned in a wonderful performance to bolster and round out the already strong acting. He had worked with McDonough before on Seven Psychopaths and wound up stealing the show there as well, so it wasn’t a big surprise that he was sneaky good in this one as well. Playing small town officer Dixon with a history of racial discrimination, who’s also a few cards short of a full deck, he may have actually had the most challenging role. While he’s responsible for providing many of the films laughs, he’s a character the audience isn’t cheering for initially so he has to really work hard to win them over. This is a guy who isn’t really sympathetic and Rockwell certainly does a good job making you dislike him early on, but there is something undeniably enjoyable about watching him. The role is so well written and acted that he still managed to plant those seeds for his redemption early on with the viewer. He should find himself in good company as a candidate for Best Supporting Actor as well.
The strengths of the film are undoubtedly the writing and the acting, but the attention to detail and overall quality of the production goes a long way in solidifying the experience as a whole. Carter Burwell’s original music was beautifully western. In combination with Ben Davis’s excellent use of landscape cinematography, the two played off one another to great effect and really helped to nail down the intangible elements of a real western. Sarah Finn did a wonderful job casting the stars for this film, but she also managed to put together a very strong supporting cast. Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out), Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and John Hawkes play important supporting roles that are centrally tied to the main characters and their individual journeys. Without the added layers of quality in these roles, this film may have struggled to go deeper on a personal level with its main characters. It all adds up to a clear sign that McDonough and company had a clear goal for what they wanted to bring to the screen and the final product was nothing short of fantastic.
With this effort, McDonough has shown not just a talent for snappy scripts and good relationships with his actors but an incredible understanding of characters and development. Although the title is strange and it’s generally off the beaten path, from the top down, this is absolutely one of the year’s best films and could easily be one of the favorites to take home Best Picture.
Recommendation: If you can find it, go see it. The performances alone are worth watching and the story will serve to get you invested. This definitely isn’t one for the whole family, but don’t forget it’s a dark comedy. There really isn’t anything I didn’t like about the film, but it doesn’t quite bring the resolution you’d expect.