I can imagine that different people have different reasons as to why actress Frances McDormand sticks out in their mind. For most I assume it’ll be her Oscar-winning role in 1996’s Fargo. For others, it might be the vast extent of her acting career, including her award-winning roles upon the stage.
But for me, McDormand sticks in my memory because of one interview she gave in 2015 during a Women in Motion panel at the Cannes Film Festival. There she revealed that in her three decade-long career, she had received her asking quote only once. Know what that film was?
It is utterly insane that such an accomplished actress has had to struggle for so long to achieve pay parity with her male colleagues. But the reason I bring this up, is that McDormand’s long struggle for equal treatment is heavily reflected within the character she plays in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (TBOEM). That fight for justice, against powerful men who (mostly) do not care, is at the core of the character.
So while I can’t guarantee that personal experience is what led McDormand into accepting the role; I’d like to think that is did at least influence her into giving what is undoubtedly the best performance of her career.
Seven months after the rape and murder of her daughter, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has finally reached the end of her tether. Outraged by the lack of progress in finding her daughter’s killer, she decides to take matters into her own hands.
She does this by renting three billboards from local advertiser Robbie Welby (Caleb Landry Jones); which she uses to post a message calling out the local police sheriff, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). This drastic action almost completely unites the townspeople against Hayes, including dull-witted Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), and even her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes).
With the pressure now mounting from her neighbours and the police, Hayes must stay the path to try and keep her daughter’s death from being forgotten.
If there’s anyone that could hold the title “Master of the Black Comedy”, it would undoubtedly be writer/director Martin McDonagh. Like Aaron Sorkin and his gift of the (written) gab, McDonagh seems to have a God-given talent to mine comedy from some of the darkest material possible. Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges, Six Shooter, and even his extensive theatre work, are all grand examples of his mastery of the written word.
And in TBOEM McDonagh hits many of the same heights of his previous films. Dark and funny dialogue permeates almost every scene, with each actor managing to tread that fine line such a script would require. Without a doubt McDormand pulls this off best, with her character mostly earning the audience’s sympathy, even when her actions sometimes cross the line into more villainous territory.
But as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that no real story arc exists for Hayes. She stays exactly the same at the end as she was at the beginning. This in itself is not a deal-breaker, as Forest Gump and Nightcrawler have a similar lack of change for their protagonist. But mixed with the choice to avoid any form of plot closure come the end of the film, it’s hard not to feel a sense of frustration during the closing credits.
Rather than Hayes, the most significant character arc instead belongs to Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon. Like McDormand before him, Rockwell is utterly engrossing to watch. While at the beginning he’s a buffoon, it soon gives way to a man trying to find his place in the world and struggles to do the right thing.
Commendable as that is, you do question how a character like Dixon even reached the position he finds himself in the first place. Though it’s believable someone with his backwards way of thinking exists; it’s hard to understand why he keeps being given a pass by everyone. Yes, it can be assumed that his journey from torturer to torturee is the whole point of the story, but surely there are some behaviours so vile that they should never be forgiven?
Indeed, that vile behaviour exists in almost every character, and ultimately becomes one of the biggest downsides of the movie. It’s true there are a few individuals to root for, but when 90% of the people on-screen are utter dicks, it’s hard to emphasise in the same way as a movie with more traditional characterisation.
To be fair there are little touches of tenderness, especially when it comes to Harrelson’s town sheriff. To reveal more would be too much of a spoiler, but his journey is almost a perfect accompaniment to Hayes’ story. While she deals with her pain in increasingly destructive behaviour, Sheriff Willoughby instead embraces and accepts his pain, choosing to deal with it through the joy of family.
Powerful and hilarious in equal measure, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a masterclass of both dialogue and acting. But unlike McDonagh’s previous films, there is a sense of unevenness. Yes, this is a black comedy; but occasionally the blackness just gets too bleak.