Discussing a film’s “timeliness,” regardless of what cultural and political climate it was conceived and produced under, is typically a foolhardy errand, prone to improperly deconstructing its complexities into a simple, digestible message or moral. And while these issues with the approach are only slightly less problematic when applied to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s hard to ignore the litany of long-delayed outrages that have arisen in between the movie’s premiere and release, beginning with the well-judged withdrawal from Fantastic Fest and continuing with the (at least temporary) downfalls of Weinstein, Spacey, etc. With these events in mind, it’s tempting to take the movie as a straightforward condemnation of sexual assault and the indifference with which it was too long received. However, for better and for worse, the film is concerned with a more all-encompassing and thorny critique of American heartland culture, with equal parts finesse and head-thumping obviousness.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri‘s premise is relatively simple, concerning Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) attempts to find the man who raped and murdered her daughter seven months prior. At the moment the film begins, the efforts on the part of the town and the police department have come to a standstill. In a ploy to draw attention to the case, Mildred rents the eponymous billboards that point the finger, in bold black text surrounded by red, at Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the head sheriff in a losing battle with pancreatic cancer. This in turn sets off a torrent of outrage directed at Mildred, triggering a shocking spiral of seething hatred and scorn in the small town.
McDonagh’s tone in his films thus far has lied squarely in the black comedy, and while I can’t speak to the subject and tone of his prior work, the mix of this sober subject matter and black comedy is somewhat uneasy, if not unproductive. Much of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is shockingly angry and nigh self-righteous, and arguably if it were anchored in a less vigorous or forceful presence than McDormand’s it would fall apart. Yet this is her movie, in narrative construction (at least for most of the film) and in general impact, and her indomitable toughness obscuring a more quiet self-doubt smooths over some of the rougher patches.
And there are a surprising number of rough patches, even when factoring in the general expected trajectory of violence and escalation that does take place. Many of the few and far between comedic moments land, but the complicating factors and figures often come across as messy in a way that distracts from the narrative arc, including Mildred’s ex-husband (John Hawkes). The character transformation that the racist, absentminded police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) undergoes is drastic, but it points to a more troubling display of the possibility of redemption that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seems to want to evoke only at the most opportune moments. Oddly, for a film so seemingly focused at the outset, it is the smaller moments, the lingering on certain faces, that feel more effective than the broiling atmosphere of hatred that McDonagh and his collaborators work so hard to create.