Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s latest film is deceptively titled. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a small name. It’s a small number of a pretty inconsequential thing in a fictional, flyover town. In the beginning, the film presents the sort of colloquial morality play one might expect from such a title, but slowly and steadily McDonagh’s latest expands to encompass matters of global karmic import.
Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a mother who rents out the titular billboards to condemn Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby for the unsolved, brutal murder of her teenage daughter. The crime in question is despicable and distressing, one you’d think had no place in a comedy, but then, that’s McDonagh. It is, karmically speaking, the sort of black and white matter of guilt that’d have the Punisher locking and loading, a clearly printed receipt for one eye.
But from there McDonagh introduces us to the intricacies of Mildred, Chief Willoughby and the denizens of their town, piling on character after character, none above societal reproach for any number of reasons, be they blatant abuses of power or dating far below one’s own age. As character after character wanders through the film, backs bent with those pesky burdens of nuance and context, condemnation gets murkier. The film challenges the viewer to decide where the buck stops, to decide at what point, if any, we cease to be The Punisher and start to be a jury of peers.
To its credit the film never devolves into a partisan argument for the ideal operation of the criminal justice system. There is no soap box moment here, just a series of characters who will one by one disappoint you to varying degrees with their actions and behaviors. Perhaps you’ll grow to, if not forgive, understand some of these characters. Perhaps you won’t.
“What is to be done with this?” McDonagh seems to ask the viewers, with a question mark as clear as day. “What is to be done with all this guilt in the face of all this nuance and context? How much do we trust in justice and when must we pursue proactively?”
For fans of McDonagh such as myself (full disclosure: Seven Psychopaths is one of my all-time favorite movies), the writer-director remains as bleakly hilarious and thoughtful as ever. For the uninitiated, neither it’s subject matter or narrative are easy-going, but Three Billboards’ script and characters are unlike any others you’re likely to see in theaters during awards season this year.