This film has been lauded as a contender for Oscars. Much praise has been lavished on some of its acting performances, particularly on Francis McDormand who plays the lead female character. Other fine actors appear in this movie: Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Abbie Cornish, to name a few. The movie was directed and its screenplay written by British/Irish director Martin McDonough, who has a solid track record in both movies and the theatre.
The story is potentially a winner: Mildred Hayes’ (Francis McDormand) daughter has been raped and murdered. The local cops in Ebbing, headed by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) haven’t solved the crime and appear, after many months, no closer to doing so. Hayes, in anger and frustration, rents three billboards just outside town, and puts messages on them ridiculing the police for their inaction. The cops are incensed, much of the town is incensed, and Hayes is threatened, both verbally and physically. The cops – a racist, sexist, and bigoted lot – are more interested in putting the heat on Hayes than in finding the murderer. Indeed, the thrust of the film is less about finding the murderer, and more about the effects Hayes’ billboards have on the town.
This is a promising and potentially gripping plot. The acting performances are similarly first-rate. McDormand, as the grieving and revengeful Hayes, is superb. I’ve always liked her since I first saw her in “Fargo” way back in 1996. If she wins an Oscar for her work in “Three Billboards”, I for one, will applaud her.* Harrelson as Willoughby, is excellent. His character is tough and racist, but he has a lingering sympathy for Hayes and her predicament. The fact he is dying of cancer also complicates things. His death, halfway through the movie, has unpredictable consequences for the story and his fellow characters. I am not normally a fan of Woody Harrelson, but here, I admired his performance.
Apart from McDormand as Hayes, the other key character upon which much hinges is Sam Rockwell as Dixon, Willoughby’s second-in-charge. Dixon is a super racist, super sexist, super bigoted cop who would have been perfectly happy bashing African-Americans in the South back in the 1950s. He is a nasty, dangerous character. He has no time for Hayes and wants to crush her. Rockwell is superb in this role. He makes you really hate and loathe his character; personally, I’d give him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.**
So, the film operates on several levels. It looks at the bigotry of small towns. It is a damning indictment of racist, American police forces. It explores sexism – Mildred Hayes must be one of the most put-upon and harassed female characters in recent movies. It is also a pithy, violent comment on what an individual can do if they feel the justice system has cheated them. Hayes’ reactions are violent and extreme, but you can’t help secretly applauding her, she is up against such dreadful people.
And yet, the movie has several serious flaws. One, is the ending. Open-ended, ambiguous, and (I thought) almost completely irrelevant to the central plot-line. All in all, unconvincing and weak. Two, the character of Dixon (Rockwell). For much of the film, he is violent, bigoted, brutish, and utterly dangerous as the archetypal corrupt cop. Then, he suddenly has some sort of an epiphany brought on by his boss’ (Willoughby) death, and becomes likeable, sympathetic, and supportive of Hayes (McDormand). This kind of thing might happen on the road to Damascus, but after you have just been firebombed by your archenemy Hayes? Oh come on! It just doesn’t gel with the (previously) violent and abusive Dixon we have come to know and hate/love. It rang false, it looked false, and just didn’t convince.
Then, finally, there was the dreadful language. Now, I know the characters in the story are largely from the lower, uneducated working classes who can be expected to talk rough and tough, but I thought the cursing and foul language here was over the top. I think I have written this before, but I am heartily sick of otherwise good, modern American films being ruined because producers and writers somehow think rotten language shows how “real” and “relevant” their movies are. Piffle! All it shows is how un-inventive and bereft of vocabulary are some modern movie writers. Think hard before you take your old-world, elderly relative to see this film.
So, I must say I only partly enjoyed this movie. It is worth seeing for the stellar performances of McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell. I hope they gain an Oscar or two. But otherwise, I was less than impressed with some aspects of the film.
I can only give this film a rating of 3 ½ stars out of five.
* She got one – Best Actress.
** He got it! Best Supporting Actor.