Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

“You joined the gang, man.”

Early in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a local priest stops by Mildred’s (Frances McDormand) home to give her a not-so-friendly notice: no one in town is backing her decision to erect billboards calling out the police chief for failing to catch her daughter’s rapist and murderer. Mildred doesn’t blink. She lays into the priest, comparing the Catholic Church to the Crips and Bloods for ignoring systemic child abuse. It culminates in her son, seemingly embarrassed at first, barely containing a grin as Mildred calmly orders the priest to get the fuck out of her kitchen.

If that all seems tonally disparate, it is. But this potpourri is a strength of the film, not a weakness. McDormand’s profane soliloquy neatly captures the balance Three Billboards navigates: an impeccably timed, demented sense of humor, a commanding McDormand performance, and an eye toward what it means to bring an institution to justice.

Balancing these components is no easy task, but few directors would be better up to the job than Martin McDonagh. His distinct brand of grisly comedy (he also has writing credit here) is what defines his films, and that humor is in top form in Three Billboards. Sam Rockwell is hilarious as a sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes malevolent, and always aloof local cop. I don’t think anyone can do aloof today like Rockwell can, and one exchange in particular about ‘person-of-color torturing’ was possibly the funniest I’ve seen all year (I’m aware that sounds like the least funny topic imaginable; I promise, it’s not). McDormand gets in on the comedy, too, although in a more subtle way. A nearly undetectable eyebrow raise following a line by James (Peter Dinklage) was as funny as any Rockwell vulgarity.

What elevates Three Billboards above McDonagh’s other two feature films (In Bruges, a superb movie, and Seven Psychopaths, a pretty firm meh) is its exploration of justice. Is it right to attack a dying man, even when he is part of a corrupt institution? Can a racist stalwart of that institution be redeemed if he tries to correct for his mistakes? At what point does culpability end and senseless vengeance begin? McDonagh provides no easy answers to these questions, but explores them with an intensive, satisfying approach.

McDonagh’s story, in this way, feels particularly timely. At this point, it would be surprising to not hear about more men in positions of power taking advantage of women sexually. As we grapple with our own complicity as a society in the upholding of institutions where this abuse runs unrestrained, seeing a film about a tough female crusader out to take down a male-dominated system is satisfying. Three Billboards, though, finds no easy answers concerning the consequences of such a crusade: the final line sums up the ambiguous justice of Mildred's pursuit, and it’s a doozy.

This combination of of vulgarity, humor, violence, and the search for justice reminds me of 90s-era Tarantino. That’s not to say that McDonough is the new Tarantino, per se, but he might be Tarantino-lite. As Tarantino’s recent fare has devolved into a parody of itself, McDonagh has taken up the mantle as the voice of untamed, violent philosophizing.

Of course, this all might not work without McDormand at the center. She’s a dynamic force, and deserves all the Oscar buzz she’s getting. McDonagh brings the humor, and the film’s thematic vision. But no one could tell off a priest as convincingly as McDormand does.

3.5/4 stars