Critic's Notebook: Sam Rockwell Stretches and Surprises in 'Three Billboards'

Courtesy of Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

As a bad cop who stumbles toward redemption in Martin McDonagh's 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,' the 49-year-old character actor shows us new shades of his talent.

From the moment her character, Mildred Hayes, strides into a local advertising agency with a plan to shame the town sheriff over what she sees as his department's inaction in the investigation of her daughter's rape and murder, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri belongs to the magnificent Frances McDormand. She's a vengeful figure out of Greek tragedy by way of America's Old West. But another key performance in Martin McDonagh's corrosively humorous drama sneaks up on you in different ways, wrapping dim-bulb ignorance, intolerance and hostility around a damaged core of human vulnerability and an eventual bid for absolution that's surprisingly affecting.

Officer Dixon at first glance seems a classic mouth-breathing doofus with a comic malevolence that is vintage Sam Rockwell. A clueless deputy who sings Marty Robbins cowboy ballads, listens to Abba and reads robot comics, he casually spouts epithets offensive to an impressive assortment of minorities within his first scene or two. Dixon is also a spineless mama's boy, his worst tendencies encouraged by a hardened crone with all the maternal tenderness of an alligator. Having lost his father at a young age, he looks up to Woody Harrelson's Chief Willoughby with an admiration bordering on worship. But even his best efforts to be a good cop butt up against the wall of his stupidity.

When Dixon suffers a devastating loss, it breaks him in ways that allow the resourceful Rockwell, 49, to rebuild him piece by piece. This happens not with ennobling speeches or moral epiphanies, but via foolish mistakes, an outburst of stunning violence, crippling fallout and mind-expanding examples of forgiveness. The ache of grief and the sorrow of difficult reckonings ripple through this movie even as it continues to yield dark tragicomedy and invigorating hints of the absurd. Nowhere are those forces more at play than in Rockwell's layered performance.

McDonagh has written amusing roles for the actor before — as dognapper-turned-screenwriter Billy Bickle in Seven Psychopaths and as a dangerously dumb hotel clerk in the Broadway play A Behanding in Spokane. But those works were loopy capers imbued with a familiar off-Hollywood outlandishness. McDonagh's new film is a richer, more soulful examination of the bruised heart of America, and the doltish Officer Dixon — for all his sneering attitudes, his pathetically posturing machismo and reprehensible weaknesses — ultimately is exposed as an orphan of that world, starved for love and guidance.

Brought low by his own blunders, Dixon finally pauses to reflect on the words of his mentor, counseling him to put aside hate and give calm consideration a try. "Deep down, you're a decent man," Chief Willoughby tells him, and Rockwell understands that it's as important for the audience to believe that as it is for Dixon. He never glosses over the fallen deputy's limited intelligence, but he finds strength of character, a sense of what's right in this misguided man-child that makes Dixon instinctually smarter and more sensitive. The injustices of a world too full of cruelty to heal all wounds mean he can never be the hero he yearns to be. But this unlikeliest of candidates for redemption finds just that as antagonists become allies and a quest for retribution becomes a stirring move toward painful acceptance and perhaps peace.

Rockwell's sauntering physicality and goofy insouciance have seldom been put to better use. Dixon is a role that allows him to navigate a path from the lonely margins of idiocy to the warming elevation of empathy and atonement. It's a beautiful transformation, and it should give audiences a fresh appreciation for the undersung gifts of this distinctive character actor.