It might look like a comedy from the trailer, but "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a subject as unfunny as anything you can probably think of. The fact that Writer/Director Martin McDonagh manages to get us to smile so often is a testament to his writing skills. The death of a child through a brutal crime generally does not set off the chuckle meter for most of us. However, if you have seen his previous films, "In Bruges" or "Seven Psychopaths", you might not be too surprised. Each of them deals with dark themes with comic overtones and while not always successful in the case of "Seven Psychopaths", it all clicked in the feature debut "In Bruges".
Crime leaves a scar on everyone it touches. The feelings may not be the same from one victim to another, and they certainly do not get expressed the same way, but everyone has a piece of themselves changed by these kinds of events. Mildred Hayes is the mother of a dead teenage daughter. Her anger seethes for months and when she reaches a boiling point she is ready to let it out on anyone in the vicinity. Frances McDormand will probably win her second Oscar as the brutally self centered, guilt ridden and thoughtless Mildred. She is pushing for answers but there are none coming her way. Mildred is a character that you can at first feel for, but as we see what her mania is doing to others in the community that would otherwise sympathize with her, we can also hate her a little. She still has one child and he is battered by her pitbull like approach to the problem she sees. The Sheriff in the town is not guilty of negligence, just a lack of evidence to pursue. A man who shows a romantic interest in her and tries to be a friend, is belittled by her blindness to the feelings of others.
This movie never goes where you think it is going to. It feels like a vengeance film and a procedural, wrapped up in small town melodrama, but it never takes a conventional course. There are a number of moments that come out of left field, although they really are significant and related to the characters. The Sheriff's story turns out to be as sympathetic as Mildred's. Just when you think the deputy is getting his just desserts, there is a string of information and behavior that changes our attitude towards the character. People in this movie say and do hurtful things to each other, but rarely with the intention of having the kind of effect that occurs. It's as if each is throwing a temper tantrum and the whole town feels like the bewildered Mother in the grocery store with a ego-centric toddler to deal with.
Woody Harrelson can play both psycho and family man. Here, you will find his performance ultimately heartbreaking. At the same time, he manages, even when off screen to delight us with a sense of humor or a moment of empathy that everyone should appreciate. John Hawkes plays Mildred's ex-husband, the abusive Charlie. He too can be sympathetic one moment and loathsome the next. Lucas Hedges, who was so effective in "Manchester by the Sea" last year, again plays a teen, trapped by a family drama that he has difficulty coping with. There are a dozen performances by secondary characters that are just spot on: Zeljko Ivanek, Samara Weaving, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones and others make this feel like a real place with real people who have real faults and qualities.
Special attention however must go to a second likely Academy nominee for this film. Sam Rockwell has been a favorite of mine since I first saw "Galaxy Quest". He was neglected for Awards attention a few years ago for one of my favorite films from 2013, "The Way, Way Back". That injustice is unlikely to be repeated. Rockwell is simultaneously repellent and sympathetic in the part of a Dim Deputy who has anger issues but also a strong need for justice. The less you know about the film and it's plot twists, the more compelling the performances turn out to be, Dixon is a character in search of a redemptive storyline, and it doesn't matter that he is sometimes an awful person, he is also a human being. Mildred's quest for justice for her daughter changes lives in many ways, none of them are predictable, and Rockwell's Dixon is the least predictable of all.