Revenge is usually a dish best served cold, but when seen through the lens of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri director Martin McDonagh, vengeance takes on a twisted form of humor that’s simultaneously heartwarming and melodramatic and all kinds of disturbing. Three Billboards is a movie that takes on different shapes and forms as it progresses, functioning on multiple levels as it announces its themes in bold, capital letters.
Mildred Hayes (played fantastically by the ever-reliable Frances McDormand) is grieving and grieving hard. Her teenage daughter Angela was raped and murdered—the body burned after the violent act. The suspect (or suspects) have yet to be identified by the local police, the investigation seemingly moving at a tortoise pace. In order to attract public attention, she rents out three billboards, plastering them with statements to provoke Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the chief of police and her chosen archnemesis. Although Willoughby isn’t a total a-hole and is sympathetic towards her frustrations, her disappointment with the lack of results and quality of law enforcement evolves into a rabid (yet somewhat justified) persecution of their inadequacies. Quick to protect the police force is Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell in a role he gives his all), a lousy excuse for a cop whose racist worldviews and alcoholic tendencies have made him the town clown, a joke whose irresponsibility borders on dangerous.
The acting in this film is outstanding. McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell are all up for Oscars this year, and two out of three of these thespians might actually go home with a gold statue in their hands (it will be a second for McDormand if she burns the competition). This almost feels like a pinnacle for McDormand, who has built a career on playing madly ferocious, seriously complex characters (see: Fargo, Almost Famous, Olive Kitteridge) who do not sacrifice emotional gravitas for likability. When she drives a dentist’s tool through his fingernail in a fit of rage, you feel the intent and you feel for her too. When she screams, it’s as if you know each strand of hair on her head is turning gray as she does so. When she tells an overtly preachy priest to go fuck himself, you cheer her on with no ounce of spiritual remorse.
It’s this ability to imbue anger with sympathy that’s the key to her genius. And the equally angry men surrounding her don’t blend into the background either. Both Harrelson and Rockwell carve out performances that’ll be remembered as some of their best work ever. They both fit snugly into the uniforms of disgruntled lawmen, whose practices and morals are constantly being questioned. Willoughby is a warm father and husband, as evidenced by his idyllic home life, which looks like it was ripped straight from the lines of a Keith Urban song. Dixon, on the other hand, is white trash personified—a mama’s boy who abuses his badge in order to coddle his lingering insecurities.
The script is unique, a careful combination of multiple genres (crime thriller, small-town drama, black comedy) that fluidly shifts in tone and mood. It could’ve been jarring if not properly executed, but under expert hands and a cast that can juggle every emotional lilt, it becomes a scathing satire of the American zeitgeist, political and personal all at once, a narrative that captures numerous social issues, throws them into a blender, and grinds everything into a grimly sweet metaphorical milkshake. And the great thing about it is, even if it's rough to digest, it surprisingly all goes down quite easily.