Can a bad cop be a good man?
Can an officer of the law who spends most of his time drunk and has been known to harass people of color have redeeming qualities? Can a woman whose teen daughter was brutally raped and murdered become so hated in her community that she receives death threats because she takes aim at the local police department for failing to solve her daughter’s case?
These are just some of the serious and complicated questions posed in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), a comedy drama by writer/director Martin McDonagh, a movie that does indeed produce frequent laughter but is driven by its serious themes, which by far are the best part of this film.
Mildred (Frances McDormand), an embittered coarse woman, spies three decrepit billboards on a lonely road on the way to her home and immediately hatches the idea to use them to combat the local police department. She seeks out the young man Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) who runs the company that owns the billboards and pays for her messages to be put up, three simple statements which pretty much accuse the local police department of not doing enough to find the person who raped and murdered her teenage daughter.
Both the police department and the community as a whole take offense to Mildred’s billboards. The very popular Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) tells Mildred that his department has been doing all they can to solve the case, but some cases are harder than others, and so far they just haven’t caught a break. He tells her the billboards are not helping, but she ignores him. To further exacerbate the situation, Willoughby has cancer and doesn’t have much longer to live, and with a wife and young children, he’s got the full support of his community, which makes people lash out at Mildred even more.
Most effected by Mildred’s actions is Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an oftentimes drunk officer with violent tendencies who is not above using threats and physical harm to get his job done, and he does indeed threaten Mildred. But Willoughby defends his officer, claiming that deep down he’s “a good man.”
Mildred could give a care. She only wants her daughter’s case solved.
With such a serious plot, you may be wondering how this can be a comedy. The comedic elements come from the quirky townsfolk and from Mildred’s over-the-top way of dealing with them, from using a dentist drill on her dentist after he criticizes the billboards, to firebombing the police station.
The laughs also come from the language, which is vulgar and crude. Everyone in this town, both young and old, talk like they’re related to Deadpool.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI tells a quirky story that gets better and stronger as it goes along, and its told well by writer/director Martin McDonagh. His script is sharp and incisive with some truly biting humor, and even better, its serious themes like police brutality and vigilante justice are handled deftly.
Frances McDormand gives an outstanding performance as Mildred. She has the weathered, determination of an army drill sergeant, and you can see in her drawn face the deep pain of having lost her daughter. She’s particularly wounded because she and her daughter argued the night the girl was killed, and this was the last conversation she had with her daughter.
Sam Rockwell is equally as good as Officer Dixon. At first, he makes Dixon someone you pretty much can’t stand, and Chief Willoughby’s comments that he’s a “good man” ring hollow. But as the story goes along, and we learn more about Dixon, and we see that in spite of all his shortcomings, he really does want to do the right thing, his character becomes more sympathetic. Rockwell is terrific in the role, and it’s saying something that he’s able to take this very unsympathetic character and give him significant depth to turn him into a guy who later in the movie the audience actually roots for.
And later when Dixon reaches out to Mildred with information about her daughter’s case, it’s not only a testament to the solid writing that this moment is believable, but to the two powerhouse performances by McDormand and Rockwell.
Woody Harrelson enjoys some fine moments early on as Chief Willoughby, but as the movie goes along the story really focuses more on Officer Dixon than the chief.
Other notable performances include Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife, Anne, and Caleb Landry Jones as Red Welby, the man who owns the billboards and catches just as much heat as Mildred for allowing the messages to go up.
Lucas Hedges, who was outstanding in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) and who we just saw in LADY BIRD (2017), has less to do here as Mildred’s teen son Robbie. Clarke Peters enjoys some fine moments later in the movie as the newest police official in town, who, unlike Willoughby, has no patience for the volatile Dixon.
John Hawkes is sufficiently slimy as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie, and Samara Weaving is equally as good as his innocent, clueless nineteen year-old girlfriend Penelope. In one of the movie’s better scenes, Mildred looks like she’s about to verbally thrash Penelope in front of Charlie, but instead she recognizes Penelope’s innocence and she simply tells her ex-husband to be good to the girl.
The cast also features some familiar faces. Peter Dinklage has a small role as James, a local who has a thing for Mildred, and veteran actor Zeljko Ivanek plays the desk sergeant. And in a very creepy performance, Christopher Berry plays an unsavory stranger in town who later becomes a person of interest in the case. Berry was similarly creepy in a couple of episodes of THE WALKING DEAD as one of Neegan’s scouts, before he was blown up by a bazooka-wielding Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus).
Come Oscar time, you may see Frances McDormand as one of the final contenders for the Best Actress award for her performance here as Mildred. She’s certainly one of the strongest draws of this movie.
But THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI also tells a relevant and powerful story and does so while interspersing genuine laughs throughout, thanks to some quality writing and directing by Martin McDonagh.
Its story remains genuine and true to life. There are no easy answers or quick fixes or nice neatly wrapped endings. It’s full of people who mean well but screw up all the time, and others who don’t mean well and get away with their crimes. In short, it’s all rather ugly, but as in life, the things that matter don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re oftentimes surrounded my muck and slime. You just have to navigate through the mess to find what you’re looking for.
Or as is the case in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, you have to go above the muck and plaster your intentions on billboards, igniting a fight that you have no intention of losing.