In writing, there is one common rule: "show, don't tell." The act of telling someone your intent is seen as a lazy trope that doesn't allow moments to resonate. In director Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the story begins with a perfect subversion of this. The titular three billboards detail a crime that drives Mildred's (Frances McDormand) bitter passion throughout the story. These three signs tell a story, and one that is more powerful than showing a single moment of being "raped while dying." As the story progresses, it deconstructs the idea of telling someone your agenda and shows the complicated faults of a small town Midwest society in powerful detail. In the end, Mildred may still be the protagonist - but the people initially pursued as the antagonists are far less easy to hate. McDonagh's dark comedy is one of the more provocative social commentary movies of the year, but it's also unforgettable thanks to a great cast and McDonagh's phenomenal script. Few films capture characters quite as memorable as those of Ebbing, Missouri, and it's a shame that there aren't more writers as interesting as McDonagh writing movies these days.
It is easy to see Mildred as a symbol of 2017. She's a woman who has suffered abusive relationships and lost a daughter that was raped. As more allegations against powerful men come out in the real world, her brazen disregard for the law seems almost justified. Her belief in the gang mentality that everyone is culpable drives her to keep those billboards up, believing that they will provide some good eventually. But what those words show is the faults of the justice system. Whether or not McDonagh could predict a moment in history where men like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Space, and Louis C.K. would have careers fall due to harassment allegations is yet to be seen. Still, the fact that Three Billboards came out when it did is almost lightning in a bottle brilliant, making the poignancy of the subject feel richer. While there's elements more in line with Black Lives Matter and police corruption, the film is more of a deconstruction of what needs to be done and why it doesn't get done.
The answer isn't always clear. The man who raped Mildred's daughter is impossible to track down due to forensics issues. Still, it eats at Mildred and her son (Lucas Hedges), who share differing views on the tragedy. Where she wants the criminal brought to justice, he wants to let it go. The struggle to move on is ruffled with conflict, in part because the racism of law enforcement makes certain members loose canons. It's impossible to get anything done because some criminals are too crafty. It isn't the police's fault when the answer doesn't come immediately. It's a frustration that drives Mildred, and one that becomes more complicated as new elements emerge. This isn't a story with convenient plot beats. It paints its symbolism as multi-faceted as it can, choosing to make every character exist in moral grey areas that suggest the power that crime can have on each individual's psyche.
McDonagh's brilliance is thanks in large part to casting. McDormand's central role is the stuff Oscar nominations should be made of. She is gruff, unrelenting, and embodies a complicated woman with a vulgar vocabulary and a perfectly good reason for her bitterness. Her stares convey distress, regret, and an insecurity that this expensive gamble will not pay off. Likewise, the police officers, played by Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, have even more complicated roles that manage to create some of the film's most tragic and obscene moments. What starts as caricature builds to something real and humane. The faults of man are definitely awful, but there's much more to this than lack of will power. It's partially ignorance and a lack of guidance. Nobody's story is clear cut, and it's what eventually makes the finale's odd turns feel more cathartic. Rockwell especially brings charisma to his role as he begins the story as a modern inept Popeye Doyle and finds more value as the story progresses.
The film's relevance is both a success and hindrance to the enjoyment value. It's because similar events feel prescient that Mildred's brazen attitude feels cathartic. Her struggles aren't unlike the many victims currently accusing real life celebrities of heinous crimes. Even the nicest of individuals would want some justice paid to their personal issues. In a perfect world where everyone is culpable, this would be the case. Three Billboards suggests that it's much more difficult than that. For instance, how could someone hate law enforcement when it's only a few who refuse to save lives? How could someone hate a police officer who is doing their best job? It's difficult to really say, but the film shows the reality to what everyone wants to be told. Evil is evil, and there's no in-between. That's not true, and as unfortunate as that is - it's how society has survived for as long as it has. It wants to do better, but sometimes it's impossible to be perfect.
Three Billboards is a powerful movie that is at times darkly funny and others profound in its complexity. Lead by McDormand's fantastic performance, the film manages to create a social commentary drama that admits that it doesn't have the answers. While that may read as a cop out, it actually conveys something more interesting about society and its will to change. It's true that victims need to have justice, but at what expense? The film manages to make each character intricate and compelling in ways that go down to a macro level. They manage to be billboards of a different kinds, ones presenting a message to a society that goes beyond simple text. It tells what society wants them to tell, but the film shows a richer tapestry where characters show their true integrity at moments of vulnerability. Maybe those moments could've been different, but humanity is nothing without cooperation. Mildred's journey may still be the interesting center that the audience roots for in the end, but it's not the person we started the movie at being mad. It's someone completely different.