If I had to describe Three Billboards in two words, I would say this: subtly unpredictable. It is true there are a few obviously major plot twists and shockers; yet not enough to give it that jack-in-a-box on acid feeling we get from other dramas or thrillers, where every second there is a new turn in the story or well-placed figure to startle us. Instead, it is only after you watch the entire work that it truly dawns on you: nothing quite turned out like you expected.
The premise of the film is seemingly quite straight-forward: a mother, Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand), hires three billboards on a quiet road in her town in order to call-out the local police force for not doing enough to catch the person who brutally raped and murdered her daughter several months earlier. This act of justice-seeking causes quite a stir amongst the community, particularly as it targets a much-loved figure within the town, the head of the police force, Sheriff Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson).
Yet, one way in which the film continually surprises the viewer is in how the black and white division of enemy and friend often blurs to a softer hue of grey; we fail to have the hero/villain divide that one might expect. As we watch the exchanges between Willoughby and Mildred, for instance, we see a shift from her apathy towards him (shown particularly as she admits she started her campaign against him with the full knowledge that he is suffering from terminal cancer), to an attitude of compassion and sympathy. Even though they are at war with one another, we can still see there is a level of care and understanding between the two, a beautiful and very real reflection on human nature; even our worst enemy is a human, one in which we can empathise with to some extent, if their troubles can never subsume our own.
Boundaries are also submerged when it comes to the emotional dynamics of scenes; scenes of sadness are often mixed with moments of humour and vice-versa. This again helps aid the unpredictability of the film – for example, in one scene where we see Mildred begin to breakdown, the hard-hitting emotion of the film is expertly diffused with a conversation she has with her slippers. This is also particularly seen with Sam Rockwell’s character, Officer Jason Dixon. His character brings a lot of humour into the film – from being an excellent parody of the Southern racist and rather dim cop stereotype as well as just at times endearing us with his childlike enthusiasm and joy – yet within moments of making us laugh, he will also make us cry, or feel pure anger due to his volatile and reactionary nature. Both Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell must be given due credit for the brilliance in which they fulfil their roles, and in particular, their ability to completely transform their characters and the mood of a scene within seconds.
Overall, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing is highly-enjoyable, gritty, with a great balance between humour and raw emotion. Part of what makes the film such a good watch is the fact that the action and plot unfurls smoothly and gently, in the style of wound ribbon almost, without at all boring the viewer nor failing to enthral us. It engages and intrigues us and makes us realise that, actually, it was not at all what we were expecting.