Grief is the engine that runs the plot of Martin McDonagh’s unsparing dark comedy/drama “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which opens wide today, after a week in limited release. Specifically, the grief of Mildred Hayes, played with controlled fury by Frances McDormand. It’s been seven months since her daughter was raped and murdered on the side of the road leading to her home, and the local police haven’t even found a suspect. While driving home she comes across the titular three billboards. They’re on a road that Mildred is told repeatedly is only used by the crazy or lost, and have not been rented out for decades (although sun-bleached words, such as “life” remain, mocking her). She rents them, and in black type on a blood-red background, demands the town’s chief of police, Bill Willoughby ( a steely yet charming Woody Harrelson, in country gentleman mode) to explain why no progress has been made.
The billboards injects her grief into the town’s ecosystem, and the McDonagh’s screenplay follows it with the implacability of a Greek Tragedy, bringing in its wake more death and violence. The citizens of Ebbing are made to feel her pain, and not many are happy about it. Not even the confession that Willoughby is dying can dissuade Mildred. “They wouldn’t be so effective after you croak, right?” she tells him. It’s a moment of bleak comedy, played beautifully by both actors. Willoughby’s death only increases the grief, and hardest hit is the town’s patrolman, Jason Dixon, a racist and a fool, but not so much a fool that he doesn’t know what the town thinks of him, his resentment poked at by his harridan of a mother. Sam Rockwell has the movie’s toughest assignment—he is the lone character to even approach redemption—and gives a wonderfully layered and nuanced performance.
McDonagh, a playwright (The Lieutenant of Inishmore) and screenwriter (the wonderfully discursive In Bruges) uses pitch dark humor not so much to leaven the horror, but to highlight it. He even manages to use it to lighten what, in less hands, would feel like a leaden underlining of the plot.
At the town’s lone fancy restaurant, she confronts her ex-husband and his much younger girlfriend. The ex-husband, an abusive ne’er-do-well sharply portrayed by John Hawkes, tells Mildred that “violence begets more violence.” He didn’t come up with it himself, he was told it by the 19-year-old zoo worker he’s dating. She read it, she tells them on a bookmark in a book she was reading, about polo…or polio. “The one with the horses,” she thinks.
McDormand never attempts to make get you on Mildred’s side; her pain has burnt away everything but her desire for justice. But two-thirds of the way through, Mildred does something so awful, a morally repugnant and mindlessly destructive act, and the movie essentially lets her off the hook. You wait for the moment of redemption, but it never comes; her unintended victim laughs it off.
That’s the only moment where the story’s tone gets away from McDonagh. As the movie ends, a promising lead leading nowhere, Mildred is still bristling with vengance. You’re not sure if she’s to make matters worse and go after someone who did not kill her daughter, but is assured did something to someone else’s daughter.
In an era when mass hatred can so easily be harnessed, “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri” is a story of how even the most righteous desires can turn rancid.