Reel Talk: Anger and Honesty in ‘Three Billboards’

Photo Courtesy of Tribune News Service

Payton Williams
Voices Editor

Anger makes things happen; it is a great provocateur. It motivates, creates and destroys in equal measure.

Many movies incorporate anger as a storytelling device. It’s an obvious choice. It moves the plot along while adding intensity to the atmosphere, but few movies are really about anger in the way “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is.

The plot centers on Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a tough divorcee angry that the local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has slowed down the investigation into the murder of her young daughter.

The film opens as Hayes makes a decision that gives her anger form and direction. She buys out three dilapidated billboards on the outskirts of town and uses them to send a message to chief Willoughby: “How come?”

Mildred’s act of protest seems simple enough, but Martin McDonagh’s carefully devised script about the visceral poetry and destructive power of anger unfolds in so many unpredictable ways that watching the film is akin to a sucker punch – animal and direct in ways that leave the viewer shaken up. I have not been this surprised by the turns a movie has taken in years and perhaps never by a movie I’ve experienced in a theater.

The reason for this surprise is that few films are quite so driven by their characters. Every plot point is fluid, depending entirely on the personalities of the people involved to hold the thread together. To that end, this film has some of the most complex and real characters ever presented on camera.

McDormand gives a particularly powerful performance. In a world full of poorly drawn female characters in the media, McDormand feels like a reckoning, an angry force of nature with the power to intimidate and destroy anything that stands in her way.

I struggle to think of any character presented in any media that felt more realistically battle hardened and tough than McDormand’s Mildred Hayes.

The supporting cast is just as impressive.

Harrelson plays his role with a tenderness and understanding I have never before seen in one of his performances, and Sam Rockwell, whose talent for playing complex, abrasive and funny characters has been shamefully little used in his recent films, gives one of the greatest performances of his career as Jason Dixon, a cop with a horrifying violent streak.

Every element of the film is held together by McDonagh’s powerful writing and direction. Anger is hardly a new subject for McDonagh, who has been a successful playwright for most of three decades, but in this film, he elevates anger to something spiritual, hard and mean.

It seems almost to spring up from the sun-beaten dirt of the small Missouri town, bringing retribution and tearing everything it touches apart.

Like any great work of storytelling, the film does not pass judgement on the events it shows.

It does not feel as though anger is either good or bad but views it simply as a tool many people use to make sense of the terror of life.

There is ambiguity to the story and to the characters because there is ambiguity in life.

Life doesn’t provide answers.

Life provides events, and our reactions to those events define who we become.

In this sense, McDonagh’s powerful work of art is one of the best films ever made on the subject of humanity.

It displays a world that is not defined by good and evil but by the choices people make when faced with the chaos of life.

The movie unfolds as an experience. It is more direct and honest than any film I saw in 2017, and it has stayed with me since I first saw it.

It is the rare film that feels real in its depiction of people and one of the best films I’ve seen in many years.


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