The Real Fifty Shades Of Grey: A Review Of "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is writer/director Martin McDonagh's third film, coming after In Bruges and 7 Psychopaths. And more so than in his other films, McDonagh shows us in Billboards that life is not a matter of black or white; but that rather, it is textured, filled with layers, a complex mix of grays! Nowhere in the film is this more highlighted than in the depiction and arc of two main characters: grieving mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) and redneck, racist police officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in a scene from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
That this grayness, this complexity of their characters have been vividly brought to life on the screen is supported by the fact that McDormand and Rockwell have been consistently snagging Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor wins in all the Awards shows thus far, leading to the Oscars in March.
Mildred Hayes is a single mother, hardened by grief and the frustration over the local police force's inability to come up with even a single suspect seven months after her daughter was raped, burned, and murdered. A last gasp effort to spur the police into action is to rent three billboards on the outskirts of town and fill each with incendiary text: 'Raped while dying', 'Still no arrests', and 'How come, Chief Willoughby?' Naturally, this upsets the community, as it highlights the incompetence of the police force and targets the well-loved Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). No policeman is more incensed by this show of disrespect than local dimwit, now junior police officer Dixon.
What follows is a black comedy/drama that has us invested fully in the storyline and the characters; and this is where some of the film's critics have cried 'Foul' - over the fact that allegiances and sympathies are created only to have the plot destroy said catharsis or turn them upside down; leaving us, the audience, conflicted or confused. But I would rather say this is the genius of the McDonagh screenplay. He constantly surprises and defies expectations. At a certain juncture of the film, we are asked to question the method and madness by which Mildred is pursuing her own redemption. And when we've condemned Dixon as beyond redemption, we are surprised by an arc that has us suddenly rooting for him!
It's this kind of layering that had me admiring what McDonagh has come up with. What starts off as a black comedy about loss, grief, and the search for justice; suddenly becomes a drama that explores redemption in the most unexpected places and people. How many films can say they achieve that without becoming preachy or pedantic?