Martin McDonagh is well known at this point for his love of dark humor and absurd situations. Both In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths were full of moments that were absolutely insane, and would quickly and suddenly transition into more serious moments, which could then in an instant go back to a terribly dark, and terribly funny joke. His movies to me always have this core to them that shows the decency of man in situations that are anything but decent. Good people do very bad things to each other, but they try their best not to. Every character has a spark of humanity within them, there are no caricatures or villains, just people. People who have reached their wits end, have found themselves in a situation where they must commit atrocities to continue on, and so they do so. This is embodied perfectly in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It is his most serious movie yet, full of funny moments, but with a much sadder and more relevant message than his previous films.
Three Billboards starts off with a scene that lets us know what kind of film we're watching. Mildred Hayes (Frances Mcdormand in what is certainly one of her best ever roles), is renting out the titular billboards, cursing like a sailor the entire time, and finally the advertising agent realizes who she is. "You must be Angela Hayes mother" he comments. Angela Hayes was a seventeen year old girl, who was raped and burned to death in this little town of Ebbing, not 7 months prior. This is serious subject matter, and the film always treats it as such. Fun is had at the expense of all other characters, but Angela remains a centering tragedy, reminding us constantly why the things that happen, happen. Mildred is on a crusade, tired of the police department's inability to solve the murder of her daughter, and she rents out these billboards in order to keep people from forgetting. The town has tried to move on, but Mildred cannot. Her heart is hardened, as she specifically calls out the Chief of police who is dying of cancer. She has accepted her role in this, she has accepted that she must become hated in her home town, if only it means maybe leading to closure over her daughters death. Time and again we're shown that Mildred is not a bad person. She has multiple scenes showing how much raw, unfiltered sadness lives inside of her at all times, how deeply she is hurt by both the death of her daughter and what she believes she has to do. Don't get me wrong, the things she does are awful things, such as setting a police station on fire and assaulting high school students, but as we're shown more and more of her life before and after the death of Angela, we can't help but be sympathetic towards her, as we see what exactly has shaped her into who she is now.
Although it is his most serious movie, Three Billboards is still wickedly funny, just like McDonagh's other films. He really specializes in the kinds of jokes that make you cover your mouth in shock and laughter, as you can't believe someone would actually write that joke, but damn if it isn't funny. Mildred's antics are the center of the movie and the center of the comedy, but the ridiculousness of all the other characters obviously helps things along quite a bit. You get used to the whiplash you get jumping from gut-busting laughter to dead serious delivery, and it only adds to the whole experience. It made me think a bit of Burn After Reading, another terribly dark comedy starring Frances McDormand in a key role, but in that movie she's much more ditzy and outrageous in a fun way. Here, she is funny, but like everyone else in the cast, she has demons, she has a past that has influenced who she has become, and it is a past that is not always pretty. This lends itself to the comedy though in a way, it makes everyone's ridiculous actions seem a bit more believable, and a bit funnier. Everything can be played in both directions. The cop living at home with his mom who got in trouble for assaulting a black prisoner is both sad and funny at the same time. We can see the reality of such a situation, but the way that we're led to laugh at it is a laugh that recognizes the reality of the situation, and the simply ridiculousness of it. We laugh because we empathize and understand, and we see the familiarity in the silly moments. McDonagh truly shines here in this respect, as this is his most realistic movie yet, with his previous two being about In Bruges being about hitmen hiding in Belgium, and Seven Psychopaths being about well...seven psychopaths. Three Billboards is about a grieving mother in a small town. With almost any other director, that would be a straight up drama. McDonah understands though, that even in tragedy there is comedy, there's always the other side of the coin just waiting to be flipped over.
The performances of the other actors besides McDormand are worthy of note as well, with Woody Harrelson being the chief of police that Mildred is calling out on her billboard, and Sam Rockwell being a deputy underneath Harrelson who looks up to the man like a hero. Sam Rockwell in particular has always been one of my favorite actors to see in a movie, as I've always thought he's been very underrated. Here, he lets his talent shine, transitioning from a silly racist mid-western cop stereotype to a man in deep pain who despite everything he's done, has a sense of justice in him that drives him. He goes from a side character to the main stage in the second half of the movie, and god if I didn't see a deeply tortured man when I looked at his face. There are so many things that I wish I could put into words, his character is one that is so subtly complex, and has so much going on under the surface that makes him easy to almost ignore in the beginning. But the justice that lives inside of him becomes his driving force that may sometimes lead him to the wrong places, but ultimately shows that he's a truly good man.
That to me is what this movie is about, this core that everyone has that is an essential part of them. We spend years, decades, building up walls around it, constructing a personality to hide it away so that others can't see the thing that really makes us who we are. But no matter how much we try, it drives us. Mildred Hayes on the outside is a hard, ruthless cynic who will hurt whoever it takes to get what she wants. But underneath all that, she is a woman who has lost her daughter to an incredibly violent crime, and a woman who despite everything, still has hope that the killer can be found. All of her actions are those of a woman with hope inside of her heart. Why else would she pay for these billboards and risk the scorn of the entire town? She knows the chief of police, and she believes in his ability to find the killer, she thinks just maybe all it'll take is getting them investigating again, and she'll finally get closure. Rockwell's character is one that has been lead to believe that he's a stupid, incompetent loser that can only try to get the approval of his superiors, but when he's left to his own devices, he truly has a fierce sense of justice that cannot rest no matter what gets in his way. This movie is about the goodness in every human heart that we try to bury as deep as we possibly can to protect it from the world, because every one of us knows what it feels like to show your true self to someone and get a negative reaction. All the cynicism and hatred and fear has a starting point in the human heart, and that is hope.