Characterization is a tricky thing, because it’s not just about how well the character is written, but also about how well that character is portrayed. When you have humanized, perfectly developed characters, you need the right actors to bring them to life. Not somebody who simply matches their physical attributes, but somebody who truly understands who these characters really are. Somebody who can actually bring a figment of a filmmaker’s imagination to life. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri follows grieving mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose teenage daughter was brutally raped and murdered months ago. Distraught that the killer has yet to be caught, Mildred puts up three billboards taunting the city’s police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Offended by her combative attitude, Willoughby personally confronts Mildred to get her to take the billboards down. Mildred refuses and when the local media starts turning to the story into the sensation, Willoughby is inspired to start looking back into the case. Unfortunately, he has some close friends and loyal officers who start taking matters into their own hands, retaliating against Mildred. The last thing she’ll do, though, is back down. 

Frances McDormand has always been one of my favorite actresses. She has so much range, and does both comedy and drama flawlessly. Those talents are on full display here, giving a layered performance filled with grief, disappointment, regret, vengeance, and rage. Her motivations are completely based off emotion and not logic, but even she seems to know that. After initially taunting Willoughby with the billboards, he honestly and emotionally explains to her that they have done everything they could do to find the killer. Sometimes you just don’t. Mildred seems to understand where Willoughby is coming from, maybe even believing him, but her emotions override everything. As the war between her and the town rages on, everybody goes to crazy extremes to get what they want. Screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh masterfully weaves bleak, cynical comedy with touching, realistic human drama. While it’s hilarious to see Mildred tear into the idiot townspeople with pitch perfect profanity, it all comes from an incredibly dark place. I was laughing, but feeling a bit sad at the same time. 

Another beautiful scene has Mildred coming across a lone deer near the billboards. “You’re not trying to make me believe in reincarnation, are you?” she asks the deer. You can tell she feels silly talking to it, but there’s a part of her that’s believing her daughter may still be around in some shape or form. It’s a fascinating exploration of grief, showing the extreme lengths one will go to just to get even a semblance on closure. It’s not only Mildred searching for that closure, but all of the characters are on their own little journeys of self-discovery. Sam Rockwell’s idiotic Officer Dixon was the highlight for me. What starts off as a generic racist, hick cop stereotype, turns into an incredibly nuanced character who I found invested in near the end.  Rockwell excels at playing smarmy, unsympathetic characters, and you certainly want to see him get his comeuppance at first. His character and the story take such a turn, however, that I was completely rooting for him in the end. 

The only character with any semblance of logic is Willoughby, played by an excellent Woody Harrelson in a very layered performance. He really is just a police officer trying to do his job. While he does genuinely care about Mildred and her daughter, he knows there’s not much more he can do to help her. However, those billboards will stay up until something is done, so he doesn’t really have a choice. When he’s forced back into the case he couldn’t solve, he becomes more emotionally invested. Willoughby uses his newfound investment to inspire others around him to do better too. The film is full of stubborn characters that are forced to learn the error of their ways and actually change for the better. Even then, when that final scene hits, it shows that they all still have much further to go. Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, and many other great actors round out the cast, getting great times to shine in their minimal roles. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri features the strongest character work I’ve seen all year. The biggest reason why is not just because of excellent writing and direction, but because all of these actors truly understand their characters. It’s certainly a dark comedy, and I found myself laughing quite a bit, but all of that comedy came from a very honest and real place. I haven’t seen either of writer/director Martin McDonagh’s other films In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths, but after this, it seems I need to check them out ASAP. It’s clear I’m missing out on some true talent. 


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