When film noir is brought up, the first thing people tend to think of is the environments that these films are associated with. They think of the dark alleys and smog-saturated urban locales of American cities (typically LA but sometimes New York) where many an evil deed has taken place.
However, rural noir is a thing too, and it has given us some of the genre’s most evocative films. Fargo is often considered the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece. Aussie director Jane Campion gave a feminist stab at it with her chilling mini-series, Top of the Lake. David Cronenberg turned the neo-noir format on its head with his brilliant A History of Violence (see here). Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the latest attempt at rural noir, and it not only sustains the validity of the genre but it’s a great film by any measure.
Set in the eponymous fictional town, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri follows the plight of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a shop owner whose daughter was raped and murdered several months ago. Acknowledging that there are three unused billboards on the road outside her house, Mildred decides to rent and use them to inscribe her anger towards the local police department for their inability to make an arrest in the case.
Directed primarily at Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), Mildred declares a de facto war on the town’s police, including Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a brash, undereducated cop who may or may not have tortured a black inmate.
Written and directed by Irish filmmaker/playwright Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards certainly comes with a pedigree. After earning an Oscar for his short film Six Shooter, McDonagh would go on to direct the graceful action-comedy In Bruges and then the uber-meta, script-writing meditation Seven Psychopaths. Through it all, McDonagh has shown a firmly distinct hand at penning contemporary crime fiction with his wicked sense for black comedy and his penchant for crafting fully-dimensional characters and morally complex stories. With his latest film, McDonagh has outdone all of his previous cinematic efforts by a considerable amount—and primarily because he’s finally achieved a goal that he had previously only hinted he was capable of: writing a perfect screenplay.
With its constantly evolving storyline, not a moment goes by in Three Billboards that feels unnecessary or unearned. To say too much more about the film’s plot would be a bit of a disservice, as it is as unpredictable and deceptive as any other movie you’re likely to catch this year. The story will make turns you never saw coming. Characters that at first seemed despicable will find themselves in a redemptive state. Furthermore, the screenplay keeps so many driving plot points ambiguous. But ultimately, it all resounds as satisfying. It certainly was a project that had to be mounted delicately—especially as it attempts to blend the sorrowful with the comic—but McDonagh achieves this with an effortless degree.
McDonagh’s status as a black humorist with an understanding of humanity has done his previous projects a world of good, and Three Billboards is the apex of this mantra. While the dialogue in the film is searing with profanity, it doesn’t come off as gratuitous. Instead, it serves to reflect the frustrations of the film’s characters, and like any great crime yarn, it feels both realistic and entertaining. There’s plenty of violence to be seen too, and as sensationalistic as it gets, there’s still a very real current to it—albeit a disturbing one.
Three Billboards is set in small-town America and brings up issues such as violence towards women and minorities, which confidently captures America’s ugly backbone at a time when it’s perhaps more disgraceful than ever without relying on any explicit statement. Viewers will also notice the clever little details McDonagh gives his film (such as making Officer Dixon an avid comic-book reader), which bestow on it more life despite its Midwest trappings. While we all might know that the flyover states can be banal, this movie is anything but.
Casting-wise Three Billboards is also spotless. Frances McDormand was likely cast due to her legendary performance as Marge Gunderson in the aforementioned Fargo—although she plays a much different character here. Instead of a well-mannered police officer caught in a particularly ugly crime investigation, McDormand plays a foul-mouthed mother seemingly toughened by the abuse from her spouse (played by the venerable John Hawkes in a small but meaty role) and her daughter’s brutal murder. She’s fully sympathetic, though, as McDormand communicates a frailness to Mildred underneath her tough-as-nails exterior. It’s easily her best role in two decades.
Woody Harrelson gives another commendable performance as the multi-dimensional Sheriff Bill Willoughby, albeit not quite as much as Sam Rockwell. Rockwell has proven to be an actor of great range throughout his career, but he might do his most impressive work to date as Jason Dixon, a man whose true colors lay dormant until the final act.
Three Billboards is a great film through and through. At a time when people are feeling that the elongated format for television is offering a better avenue for storytelling than cinema, McDonagh proves that movies are still very capable of being surprising, thoughtful, and socially relevant within the span of two hours. Certain to attract plenty of award buzz, and liable to be a box office success, Three Billboards may very well net McDonagh another little golden guy at this year’s Oscars. Regardless of this, let’s just hope he’ll be able to keep up this sort of creative stamina for his next project, as in a lot of ways he’s exactly the type of crime writer that the world needs right now.
Watch the Official Red Band Trailer (NSFW)!
See also: Review: The Shape of Water (2017)
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.