(Image via Fox Searchlight Pictures)
If there’s a film to have been released in 2017 that perfectly captures the anger and outrage that we all have regarding the numerous rape/sexual assault/harassment stories dominating the headlines, that film would be Martin McDonagh‘s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The writer-director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths delivers his finest film to date, and a story that has much more meaning and substance because of the news regarding powerful sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein, and the lengths powerful men like him would go to get away with sexually abusing women and silencing them. The film’s focus isn’t on predators like a Weinstein, but the effect that violence toward women can have with the mother of that victim, and how a small town comes to terms with such an unthinkable tragedy, and makes them think about law enforcement in ways that would make them feel uncomfortable. For that reason, Three Billboards is one of the most important films you’ll see this year, and for me is the best film of 2017.
Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, the mother of a young girl named Angela who was brutally raped and murdered in the small town of Ebbing, Missouri seven months prior. In response to a lack of a response from the police department, Mildred decides to rent out three billboards outside of the city that read “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” The Chief (Woody Harrelson) doesn’t particularly like the signs, as does the townspeople and a fellow police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). But Mildred is defiant in keeping the billboards up, and making sure that the memory of her daughter isn’t forgotten, and makes sure to keep the local law enforcement in check in making sure that her daughter’s killing is brought to justice.
Like McDonagh’s previous work, Three Billboards is a really funny film, but never in a slapstick kind of way. It feels like an early Coen Brothers film, which makes sense for McDormand to be involved in a picture like this (on top of their longtime professional collaboration between McDormand and the Coen Brothers, McDormand is married to Joel Coen). McDonagh on top of being a great filmmaker who can get the absolutely best performances out of his performers (more on them later), he’s such a great screenwriter as well. For being an English/Irish filmmaker, McDonagh perfectly captures the small-town aesthetic for the fictional Ebbing, Missouri, and their disdain/discomfort with those three titular billboards. From the preacher who visits Mildred due to outcry from his congregation, an incensed “fat dentist”, and other colorful characters make up this small southern town.
As great as the direction and screenplay by McDonagh is, the heart of the film lies in the performances of our main principle actors. Woody Harrelson gives one of his very best performances as Chief Willoughby, a foul-mouthed but kind man who, while provoked and a little angered by the three billboards, gets the attention of Mildred and opens up the case of her daughter once again to find her killer to bring some closure to Mildred, but also to have the billboards come down as well. As well as Harrelson’s incredible performance, Sam Rockwell gives what might be the best of his career, and that’s saying something for one of the best character actors of the last 25 years. I don’t want to get into too many details about Rockwell’s character, but I’ll just say that it’s a hilarious, heartbreaking, sad, and beautiful performance by the young actor. Don’t be surprised if you hear his name a lot in the coming months at these major awards shows.
But hands down the best part of this film is Frances McDormand, giving one of the very best performances in a career that is full of great performances. As an audience member, I felt the anger, rage, and sadness that she has throughout the picture, and my heart broke for this character when it was needed. She might not be the friendliest person, but she doesn’t have to be. You or I would be just as angry if something as heinous as her daughter’s death had happened to someone who you or I love dearly. If I were a parent watching this film and this performance, I probably would’ve been an emotional wreck by the end of this film. That’s a sign of a truly incredible performance, and one that I’d go as far to say is the best acting performance I’ve seen from any actor in 2017.
Three Billboards is a great American movie that wasn’t actually made by an American. Not only that, but the recent headlines involving sexual harassment/assault by powerful men has now elevated the film from so much more than a brilliant dark comedy. Ronald Short, a colleague of mine, wrote on Twitter that every man should go see this film, “especially those who live in rural areas that may be obsessed with the belief that violence equates manhood.” I couldn’t agree more. This film will make you laugh just as much as it’ll make you angry and sad (in a good way) for every victim of sexual assault, especially the ones like Mildred’s daughter who didn’t live to tell their story. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a powerful film in that sense, and one that you’ll hear a lot about come awards season next month.