By: Eshan Surana, Class of 2020
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a 2017 black comedy crime film written, produced, and directed by Martin McDonagh. It stars Frances McDormand as the troubled mother of a girl who was raped and then killed by a mysterious criminal in Ebbing, Missouri, who is yet to be found and brought to justice by authorities. Woody Harrelson plays the police chief who is in charge of the yet incomplete investigation; Sam Rockwell plays his racist and violent deputy.
Now, from the summary of this movie you might have a general idea of what this movie should be about. It involves the unresolved rape and murder of a teenage girl, so it must be a somber drama leading up to the eventual capture and punishment of the perpetrator of the crime. It is a story of a woman who uses billboards to expresses her grievances about the failings of the police, hence, obviously, the police should be largely antagonistic figures.
All those assumptions are wrong. Given the heavy and torturous subject matter, Martin McDonagh actually manages to piece together a funny and heartwarming tale of redemption and forgiveness. The characters in this film aren’t ‘movie characters’. They aren’t one-dimensionally good or bad; they are tremendously complicated and beautifully flawed people who you can imagine living in the real world. And watching their evolution and growth and change is the emotional core of this piece. McDormand is the lead character in this story but I would argue that Sam Rockwell’s character, the bigoted cop, has the most significant character arc. He starts out as a person who we immediately despise; his violence, racism and emotional immaturity are made extremely apparent in the very beginning of the movie. However, by the end of the film every member of the audience walks out of the theater completely in love with him, asking themselves, ‘Wait, how did that happen?’. The transformation is stark yet seamless and Sam Rockwell deserves every accolade he is getting for that role.
No one can quite do comedy like Martin McDonagh. He adds levity and parody to situations that are unmistakably meant to be dark. The film is similar to his previous film, In Bruges, in that respect. Small things, like a mother yelling ‘I hope you get raped!’ to her daughter just hours before she actually does get raped; these things aren’t funny on their face but the way they’re edited and acted conveys an unambiguous comedic intention. He makes you laugh and then immediately makes you feel guilty for laughing. It almost has a Tarantino-esque quality, reminding me of the scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta accidentally shoots Marvin in the face. In this aspect, Martin McDonagh has established himself as the Batman of cinema; he owns darkness and uses it to his advantage.