Let’s talk about Sam Rockwell for a minute.
There’s a lot of other talent in the awkwardly, memorably titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Frances McDormand is predictably, fiercely awesome; Woody Harrelson demonstrates unexpected nuance; and writer/director Martin McDonagh takes his patented mixture of profanity and profundity to new levels.
But I’d argue that Three Billboards is Rockwell’s movie. He takes a character who at first seems to be little more than a cartoon of a bumbling, racist cop, and transforms him into the moral center of a powerfully moral film.
Rockwell plays Officer Dixon, the second-in-command to Harrelson’s Sheriff Willoughby in the film’s titular, fictional town. Dixon’s the one who has to call Willoughby at home during dinner to inform him of a trio of roadside signs that Mildred Hayes (McDormand) has plastered a message across. Those billboards accuse the sheriff of not trying hard enough to solve the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter, which occurred some months earlier.
Naturally, this unconventional attempt to badger the local authorities proves controversial, and Mildred’s understandably prickly demeanor doesn’t help matters. Even when it becomes clear that Willoughby’s a decent guy with a sympathetic backstory, Mildred doesn’t let up. McDormand is a force of nature, emanating dogged ferocity and not giving a shit what anyone thinks about her crusade, which is an act of mourning as much as an act of vengeance.
More than coarse language, though, what distinguishes McDonagh’s work is its almost old-fashioned insistence that redemption is possible. His work is the result of a potent combination of cynicism and empathy.
But back to Rockwell: It’s been two decades since he started showing up on screens, first in precious indies like Box of Moonlight and Lawn Dogs and later in meatier, but still offbeat, stuff like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Moon. Until now, Moon was his finest performance—but in Three Billboards, he plays dumb the way only a really smart actor can. It’s the same trick he used in McDonagh’s last movie, 2012’s Seven Psychopaths. (Side note: It’s amazing how McDonagh, a British and Irish playwright, has emerged as such a distinctive voice in cinema after writing and directing only three features, starting with his 2008 debut, In Bruges.)
Rockwell’s not afraid to play characters who do and say terrible things, and Dixon is no exception. Dixon has recently avoided charges for torturing an African American suspect, yet he seems less than chagrined by the experience. He’s terrible at police work, and can’t even keep track of his badge. And he lords his penny-ante authority over anyone who won’t stand up to him. But when you see what he puts up with at home from his thoroughly nasty momma, you can’t help but feel for the guy. It takes a lot to match McDormand blow-for-blow, but Rockwell does it.
The rest of the supporting cast ain’t too shabby either: Peter Dinklage plays a guy who’s sweet on Mildred, Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges plays Mildred’s teenage son, John Hawkes is her ex-husband, and The Wire’s Clarke Peters pops up too. All are well-equipped to handle McDonagh’s remarkable dialogue, which remains exactly the kind of stuff you don’t hear in polite company.
More than coarse language, though, what distinguishes McDonagh’s work is its almost old-fashioned insistence that redemption is possible. (It’s a quality that can also be seen in the films of his brother, John Michael McDonagh, who made The Guard and Calvary.) McDonagh’s work is the result of a potent combination of cynicism and empathy, but it doesn’t land without the right performer selling it.
By my count, four of Sam Rockwell’s Three Billboards co-stars—as well as his director—have previously been nominated for Academy Awards. Rockwell never has, and that should change. He’s instrumental in turning a movie about revenge into one about forgiveness.