A young woman has been raped and murdered, her burnt corpse found underneath a billboard on a street no longer used or even accessible now that a highway has redirected traffic away from it. It so happens that the girl's mother lives not a hundred yards from the spot, still blackened from the residue of the body's charred remains as the grass sits in a spot out of reach of the sun's rays and perhaps even the rain. The drive reminds her of the randomness and the vicinity of the final acts of the horrific crime, and it's obviously an unpleasant memory. Her son even thanks her, voice dripping in sarcasm, for the opportunity to remember, not only that his sister is dead, but the manner of her death.
That is because Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, great as a broken woman trying to cling to those last legs of strength), the mother in question, rents out the billboards, to the chagrin of the son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), that stand sentinel over the spot where her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was unceremoniously dumped after her rape, murder, and immolation. It's a horrifying set-up to the premise of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film that, at its heart, is the desperately sad tale of the futile search for justice. It is also, sometimes, a very funny movie, because writer/director Martin McDonagh refuses to allow his characters or, more importantly, us to wallow in the tragedy that rips apart a small town.
The police, Mildred insists, didn't try hard enough. That's why she determines to rent out the billboards for an entire year from the lessee (played by Caleb Landry Jones), and it's also why the wording of each billboard - to be read in sequence as one is driving down the road toward her house, meaning this is a twisted doormat of an advertising scheme - is so direct. The first reveals a particularly heinous element of an already heinous crime: "Raped While Dying." The second questions, in a broad sense, the lack of any arrests, and the third directs the query at the leadership of Ebbing's police force, specifically Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, gruff and impatient and unwaveringly fair).
Understandably, the billboards cause a stir in the small town, and this, for the record, is a movie that understands small towns. As easily capable of goodness as it is of concealing a monster who would commit such a crime, the hive-mind is at work in this town, but it isn't a caricaturized village of idiots. A clear line of division is drawn, with a few people in Mildred's circle siding with her and the vast majority aligning themselves with Willoughby, who, after all, is dying of pancreatic cancer. "I thought it wouldn't be as effective after you croaked," says Mildred. After she drills a hole in the thumbnail of a dentist who has aligned himself, rather threateningly, with Willoughby, the police chief can no longer consider her activism harmless.
Still, though, he remains forgiving. He understands the sting of a case that never gets a break. The rest of the police force isn't as kind to Mildred's ultimate goal, particularly the likes of Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a sardonic psychopath who seems to enjoy the part of the job where he gets to torture the part of the black population that gets sent to jail. He acts enlightened, correcting Mildred when she guesses he'd use a slur with the phrase "persons of color" (although the context - the torturing - doesn't really help anything), but it's just an act.
Rockwell's electrifying performance is key, as the character shifts from quite easy to hate to, perhaps, the most sympathetic presence of the lot and the actor plays every moment as a careful balance between angry and clever. The film, too, exists within this balance, as the points of the investigation play out against the backdrop of a quaint town with a lot of idiosyncrasies and a deep current of blackened humor. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri only missteps in its final pair of sequences, which present a choice for two characters. The choice, as presented, feels false, which means that whatever they do with that choice will reflect a simplistic view of their humanity. Before that, though, here is a movie that dabbles in a more complex idea of "good" and "bad."
Frances McDormand (Mildred), Sam Rockwell (Dixon), Woody Harrelson (Willoughby), Lucas Hedges (Robbie), Caleb Landry Jones (Red), Peter Dinklage (James), Zeljko Ivanek (Desk Sgt.), John Hawkes (Charlie), Abbie Cornish (Anne), Clarke Peters (Abercrombie), Sandy Martin (Momma Dixon), Samara Weaving (Penelope), Kerry Condon (Pamela), Amanda Warren (Denise).
Directed and written by Martin McDonagh.
Rated R (violence, language throughout, sexual references).
Released in select cities on November 10, 2017.