The old literary adage show, don’t tell always applies to the best films, too. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the latest film by director Martin McDonagh, completely embodies this technique. Amid the constant obscenities, the gruesome violence, and the offbeat plot twists, there are some delightfully poignant insights into what makes us human.
Three Billboards, in its own darkly comedic and unpampered way, grapples with questions of hope, hate, and redemption. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced mother with a propensity for profanity and violence, loses her daughter to a rape and murder case. A few months later, she begins to feel as though the local police department is not doing enough to find her daughter’s killer. And it is when Mildred is driving past three decrepit billboards on her way into town when she decides to take it upon herself to let the police, and the rest of the town, know how she feels.
Through the local advertising agency, Mildred fearlessly puts up three signs leading into the town with a controversial message directed at Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), Ebbing’s revered chief of police. The local media’s interest is peaked and the attention sparks a struggle for influence between Mildred and the police force. with members of the town dispersed between them.
When one of Willoughby’s officers, Dickson (Sam Rockwell), steps in, the struggle gets more complex, and far more violent. Dickson, who amounts to little more than a small boy in a man’s body, tries to solve his issues with force and the mere influence of his badge. But as Rockwell’s character is developed throughout the film, we see how this anger comes from life screwing him over, similar to Mildred’s situation. Their respective anger, however, is channeled in different ways. Mildred uses her anger as a propulsive force toward justice and change. Dickson doesn’t really understand what he’s feeling, which results in an overly destructive yet exceedingly fragile personality.
The performances of Rockwell and McDormand are brilliant all around. But it’s in the depth of emotion with which McDormand elicits her glares, or the flicker of pain and misunderstanding in Rockwell’s chief moments of deplorability, that they master their roles. Just as a majority of the iceberg lies beneath the surface, the depth of Mildred and Dickson goes beyond what we see on screen. And yet what we do see on screen constantly refers us to that depth.
Sure, Three Billboards conveys the stereotypes of its characters on the surface: the independent mother; the well-respected, diligent police chief; and his racist, violent subsidiary. Rather than dismissing the respective actions of these characters as a mere product of their condition, the film seeks to understand, if not redeem, their qualities. Three Billboards presents anger not as a barrier from peace and understanding, but as a necessary step in the process. All the violence and the seemingly irreconcilable hate don’t bar the characters from how we should treat each other but serve as a bridge for getting there.
Ideally, principled people are tasked to love our neighbors, even love our enemies, despite anything. But this film asks us the difficult questions. How can a grieving mother who lost her only daughter to a brutal and unthinkable murder remain calm and complacent while her daughter’s killer remains on the loose? How can a man who was always the downtrodden and misunderstood put it all past him and love those who continue the trend? The film shows us that the answer is out there. But finding it will not always be pretty. And that’s what makes us human.
These questions are the miniscule tip of the iceberg, but they point to the underlying humanitarian issues. Viewers familiar with McDonagh’s films will recognize his ability to twist the plot just enough to subvert expectations and yet keep viewers thinking they know the next move. From start to finish, audience members will find themselves laughing, asking important questions about humanity, or experiencing delightful levels of catharsis watching McDormand storm around drilling holes in dentists, cussing out the police, and kicking teenagers in the crotch.
Featured Image by Fox Searchlight