How do you extricate yourself from the mire of grief and its myriad, messy repercussions? Is is even possible or are you constantly captive to the irrationality and deep-flowing emotional currents that come in the wake of losing someone?
They’re two of the insightfully-asked questions posed by writer/director Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri which thanks to across-the-board top flight performances and nuanced writing that never provides easy answers (or any answers at all sometimes which, let’s face it, uncomfortably mirrors real life) is one of the most engrossing explorations of grief’s slippery slope to come along in some time.
Refreshingly the film, which has rightly attracted an avalanche of fervent awards buzz, never portrays either the issues it is examining nor the broken, fallible people mired in them as anything other than complex, difficult to navigate and capable of extraordinary amounts of collateral damage.
There are no easy Tony Robbins soundbite slogans to give the easy illusion of healing or progress, no epiphanies to move the emotional logjams blocking the way forward for pretty much all the characters and no great climatic finish to things that suggests all the pain is irrevocably and cleanly behind them.
No, Three Billboards is life firmly and without disguise down in the gut-wrenching trenches of life, that doesn’t pretend for a minute that the passage of time or a positive attitude will magically make everything better.
Impressively, it plunges into this maelstrom of unadorned real life, which by rights should be unremittingly, jarringly bleak with a pleasing mix of black humour, nuanced portrayals, occasional bursts of violence with again a blackened edge, and a sense of understanding compassion for everyone involved.
Given the gravity of the situation at hand, the murder of a teenage girl who was raped while she lay dying before being set on fire, the deftness of tone and pleasing layered approach to both characterisation and narrative is all the more impressive.
The mother of the girl, who is only featured in one expletive-laden scene where mother and daughter part for the last time on less than amicable terms (a memory which only compounds the ever-present grief), Mildred Hayes is portrayed by the incomparable Frances McDormand as a woman so deeply-enmeshed in grief that coming for air, thinking rationally or putting aside her neverending rage is all but impossible.
Her rage and near-palpable grief find expression occasionally in phsyical acts of violence, the delineation of which would spoil a few major plot points, but mostly in quietly but forcefully-articulated moments of rage or in more reflective times alone when the gruff, combative exterior is put aside and the tears are allowed to fall.
The title is drawn from one of her more calculated acts of grief-response when she decides to put a series of pointed messages to the local police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a decent man who is dying of cancer and who is, like pretty much everyone in Three Billboards, given fully fleshed out, multifaceted form.
When one of the town’s policeman, Dixon, comes across the billboards one night which pointedly say (1) Raped while dying (2) And still no arrests? (3) How come Chief Willoughby? he alerts his boss who responds in way profoundly and movingly different to what you might expect.
The scene that follows the discovery of the billboards’ confronting content – not only do the words strike a chord but theya re visually striking, big bold black letters on a neon orange background – is emblematic of the film as a whole as a clearly genuine Chief Willoughby expresses his genuine frustration at the lack of progress in solving the murder and his understanding of Mildred’s pain.
A subtext to this scene is Willoughby’s sense of hurt that Hayes would doubt he is giving the case everything he’s got but accompanying is a tender sense that he nevertheless appreciates why Mildred would take that course of action.
Therein you have layer upon mesmerisingly gripping layer of human interaction at its most raw and intimate and real, a pattern repeated throughout the film which never resorts to easy cliche or standardised trope but subverts and ducks and dives around expectations in a way that intimates that if life isn’t going to accommodate with easy answers or cleanly-solved issues then neither is this wholly remarkable and deeply-affecting film.
Three Billboards twists and turns much as you would expect it to but it’s never in a hurry to reach an end point, one that while it’s not neatly tied in a pretty red bow does give some small measure of humourously pleasing resolution, taking us on a journey that challenges and provokes as much as it compassionately understands and sits in close empathetic closeness.
Each and every character, from Red Welby (caleb Kandry Jones) who works at the advertising company which owns the billbords to Mildred’s gift shop coworker Denise (Amanda Warren), both of which are subjected to Dixon’s emotionally-loaded racism and vitriol – that Dixon still emerges as a fully-rounded character you care about speaks to Rockwell’s ability to brilliantly portray complex, deeply-flawed characters – through to Mildred’s hurting son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) to Mildred’s sweetly-vulnerable suitor of sorts James (Peter Dinklage), are given due time, appreciation and voice.
It’s impossible not watch this film about damaged people, and honestly aren’t we all to some extent which underscores how brilliantly well-executed this deep-dive into the messier aspects of the human condition is, doing their best, and often failing, to navigate the great gaping potholes of life, especially that lived in the shadow of trauma, and not feel connected in visceral ways to each and every one of them.
You want each and every one of them to get someplace better, most especially Mildred and yes, even Dixon (Rockwell is that good) but you are cognisant all the way that even if this is possible, it won’t be handed to them on a platter.
Three Billboards, a grippingly, stirring ode to the downs and ups and pitch-black hilarity of life, knows life is never going to be easy, especially when grief has its cold, cruel, unrelenting hands on you but it never deigns to pretending it is all easily fixable or a snap to extricate yourself.
Full of messy, bloodied loose ends and unanswered questions, grim moments and knowing laughs, toweringly good performances and writing so perfectly balanced and magnificently-balanced it will leave you gasping at times with its sheer brilliance, Three Billboards is life left to its own devices with humanity grappling to keep up in its wake and not always but sometimes succeeding in the attempt.