Woody Harrelson received his third Oscar nomination for portraying Chief Bill Willoughby in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
First let's have a nice easy time looking at Woody Harrelson successfully breaking the over twenty year gap of having no two supporting actors in a single film nominated. Harrelson, despite having the smaller role, managed to find his way into this lineup even with so much praise going to two of his co-stars, one in the very same category. Harrelson's achievement then is notable and it becomes readily obvious why he was able to break that trend through his work here. On the surface it seems we might get just a good old Woody Harrelson performance as a good old boy. Not that there isn't anything inherently wrong with that as Woody Harrelson only need compete with Matthew McConaughey when comes to the primary actor for a good old boy role. In fact Harrelson quite excels in that facet particularly as it relates to director/writer Martin McDonagh's humor, which is technically is a touch more low key in this film than his previous efforts. Harrelson's comedic timing is perfection for what is to be had through Willoughby's quiet way of venting his frustrations over the situation, whether it be confusion over "a lady with a funny eye" lodging a complaint over the billboards, or in his attempt to explain to Mildred the makeup of his police force.
Now this good old boy routine goes a bit further here with Harrelson's performance as he needs to establish why everyone seems to love Willoughby, and why does everyone hate Mildred's signs for calling him out by name. Harrelson does so by being quite charming here and delivers the needed charisma to this "great" man. This includes when Willoughby is dealing with his worst man where he brings almost a fatherly manner in his reprimands and his defense of their shortcomings. Harrelson portrays Willoughby as someone willing to listen and ready to look for the good in people whether he should or not. Willoughby even when dealing with the very hostile Mildred delivers these lines particularly well. As he offers a definite sympathy even within the frustrations as he explains his legitimate reasons for his failures to catch the killer, and his disagreement with her use of the billboards. Harrelson reveals Willoughby as this inherently likable mediator who is evidently trying his best even if not given credit for it. On a slightly side note it also must be mentioned that Harrelson is particularly great in the two scenes he has with Willoughby's daughters brings such tremendous heart in every moment of his earnest interactions with them, making Willoughby a genuine and wholly believable great literal father as well.
The real key to Harrelson's work though is his portrayal of the chief dealing with his terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis. We are first introduced to this when he brings it up to Mildred in their initial conversation. Harrelson is amazing in this scene as he more overtly reveals Willoughby's vulnerabilities to her and he is particularly affecting in revealing in his eyes just how distraught he is as she initially offers no sympathy in return. This facet of the character is something Harrelson elegantly weaves into his work even when he not directly dealing with it. One of my favorite scenes of Harrelson's is when he checks out the report on the murder near the billboards. Harrelson doesn't say anything about his own upcoming demise, yet his moments of examining the shadow of the sign as though it marks the grave of the victim he conveys the sense of Willoughby quietly seeing his own mortality in the context that he knows he'll never solve the case. Harrelson does not waste the more overt moments though which uses well as the brief times when the man simply cannot hide it anymore, or is forced to not be able to. He's downright heartbreaking when he suddenly spits up blood as Harrelson so honestly apologizes, and reveals the intensity of the very real overwhelming fear of the moment. The same is true in the scene where we see him essential make his final decision when briefly left alone at the hospital. After having just a brief moment of warmth with his wife (Abbie Cornish), where Harrelson once again projects Willoughby's seemingly unshakable charm, when alone his breakdown is incredibly moving as the complete sorrow in his expression reveals a man who knows he has no hope for survival. Harrelson exits the film soon afterwards physically though he has a few more vocal scenes through letters Willoughby left for a select few people. Harrelson delivers these in a pretty straight forward way, as a man proof reading his letters basically, though still these are rather emotional letters so this is not in a hollow sense, it is effectively handled to the point he gets one more laugh out of me even when leaving one last good-natured insult to one of the recipients. The general ideas of the letters though is Willoughby's continued influence on the story despite his departure. Well Harrelson also continues his influence on the film despite his early exit through his hard edged yet heartfelt portrayal of the tragedy of a man out of time yet with still so much left to do.
Sam Rockwell to start off takes the right approach to the role of Dixon which is to make to sure to emphasize the sheer stupidity of the character. This is from his opening scene of inspecting the billboards where he questions the men putting up the new signs on the billboards without the candor of someone you would describe as a seasoned detective. Rockwell mumbles the delivery of Dixon attempting to question the men and is rather amusing in his bungled way of attempting to threaten one of the men with arrest for improper bucket disposal. Rockwell's performance purposefully constructs the role from this outset so that we laugh at Dixon never with Dixon. In this scene there is no incisiveness as he asks them but rather we see the sheer idiocy of the man in his attempt to be any sort of cop. We see this continued in Dixon's way of speaking casually offensive language most related to homosexuals and the mentally handicapped, though notably he mostly avoids anything towards African American even attempting to revise Mildred's language, only speaking offensive words in his explanation to stop it, though more on that later. Rockwell's delivery of these words are not as comical jabs, but sloppy ramblings of a fool. He makes them just the words he's probably been saying, and taught by his mother to say as just a second nature. It's not a pretty sight and Rockwell plays it as such.
Rockwell does give a often comedic performance but this is in a very specific fashion. That is Rockwell makes every comical moments related to Dixon being something you laugh at and again never with him. When Dixon is attempting, and failing at his tough cop routine, as realized through Rockwell's approach as this over eager idiot attempting to be far more than he is. He's very funny though when ever he shows Dixon kind of fall out of this act whenever someone mentions his mother. Rockwell's hilarious in his way of slipping in thought and immediately becoming a real mama's boy in his sudden switch to this very petulant manner. Rockwell's great as whenever this happens it is an immediate almost instinctual return seemingly to a school ground dope as he either defends his mother, or awkwardly attempts to say she has less influence on him then they claim. As much as Rockwell excels with the few verbal "spars" that come from Dixon's incompetence the real comedy gold comes in his physical performance. As usually is the case for Rockwell, he's a very energetic and dynamic performer in this sense. He's terrific here in almost being a classical silent buffoon in his depiction of Dixon being a bungler in body as well as mind. This is in the more overt moments such his fearless dancing, which is always a Rockwellian treat, but more importantly in every moment Dixon is trying to be intimidating.
That can be in fairly simple ways just as the way Dixon sits back in his chair is as though he's this "badass" cop, but in fact just looks like a hapless layabout. Two favorite moments of mine is when Mildred comes to confront him, and Rockwell does this attempted dramatic get out of his chair yet get slightly caught up while doing so, or his later moment is when Dixon attempts to find his badge. Rockwell's timing just couldn't be better in making Dixon such a fool. Every one of Rockwell's little physical pratfalls is a delight that thankfully seems spring of the moment, even though they probably were not, and again is so good at reinforcing the sheer idiocy of the character that we are meant to laugh at. Of course this isn't just an entertaining look at a incompetent bully. There is that arc of the character that has become such a point of controversy in the film, making Dixon perhaps the most controversial character in any film in 2017. I stand by the idea of the reformed racist is in reality possible, but I also think what Rockwell does in the role contributes to making it feasible within the context of the film and character. The point of contention that probably most damns Dixon is the accusation that Dixon tortured an African American suspect in prison. We never learn the truth of this matter in the film, in fact Rockwell portrays the moments where this is brought as an desperate defensiveness. A defensiveness that seems ill-fitting to a truly unabashed racist, who would more likely be smugly prideful over their accomplishment, Rockwell's approach once again suggests maybe the charge is not wholly true or at least not so simple.
Of course there is evidence against old Dixon when we do see him beat a couple of people, the two whitest people in the film the main one is even called Red (Caleb Landry Jones), but that's not the point. It is important though to remember the context of the sequence. Red, the man the beatings is aimed at, is the person Dixon has been pressuring specifically due to his allowance of the billboards that Rockwell has always emphasized his distaste most strongly within the use of Willoughby's name. When Willoughby exits it is important to note Rockwell's portrayal of a complete breakdown and grief at the loss of the chief he clearly so respected. The sequence of Dixon going about beating Red, Rockwell portrays as a man with a mind set towards some act of revenge for the chief, but not a lick of intelligence within the act. Now even with having said that Dixon is not a good person, and Rockwell portrays him as such. The question though comes into the transformation of the character, which actually begins right after the beating Red scene. Rockwell reveals a real sheepishness when called upon his actions by being immediately being fired and his reaction is as though Dixon thought he was going to be thanked for "avenging" Willoughby. Dixon is instead fired leading to an important scene for Rockwell's performance. That is as his mother goes on like usual, Rockwell portrays Dixon finally with any introspection for his actions. Rockwell shows that obviously he isn't instantly changed, but is finally focusing on some of his mistakes. There's a specific modicum of shame that Rockwell finds when his mother suggests with racist mindset to get rid of the new chief who is black. His reaction infers a sense that Dixon is finally at least starting to see what his mother's words have gotten him, not that he's suddenly some progressive hero. Rockwell instead in these few scenes just reveals a pathetic man without anything really left except for his self-loathing as he seems to realize he's done wrong.
Rockwell already establishes that before Dixon gets his own letter from Willoughby that encourages him to try change his ways and solve the murder case. He is immediately greeted to a wall fire, created by Mildred via Molotov cocktails to burn the station not to hurt Dixon, leading to his first set of injuries. Dixon's first real act of change comes in the hospital where the equally injured Red comes to see if the bandaged Dixon is okay. Rockwell delivers Dixon's initial apology as just naturalistic swell of emotion as a reaction towards someone giving him sympathy despite his brutality towards them. Dixon after these scenes still doesn't become some super man in fact Rockwell shows a man drowning in his sorrows of the sorry state of his life when he's in the bar who just happens to come across as man bragging about a vicious rape. The idea of Dixon doing what the man he respected so much asked him to do is made believable. Again Rockwell doesn't make him suddenly this virtuous saint, but rather a pretty pitiful man just trying to do one thing. Rockwell is outstanding in his scene of presenting the evidence he received to Mildred. Rockwell revealing of a slightly changed man is of this timid sort with his delivering emphasizing his awkwardness of a man just trying to do what he believes is the right thing. Rockwell makes even this is still a sad state as Dixon is clearly still mostly a screw up. There is one great moment where Dixon attempts to speak some wisdom about learning things, and for a moment seems to go back to his casually offensive remarks almost by instinct. Rockwell is great in his reaction as he shows Dixon after that line just one again recognizing his past again as he holds his head in shame. Rockwell doesn't portray Dixon as finding new life as a hero, but just doing one thing his old boss asked him to do. Rockwell even in his near final sign reveals just a man in near suicidal state clearly overcome by his past, hardly as this new reformed sort, but rather a man just finally aware of the many mistakes of his life. This is an fantastic performance by Sam Rockwell. One gets some classic Rockwellian moments, which are always nice, and he adjusts them to this character, but really what is most remarkable is his successful realization of Dixon's arc. An arc that is not of a bad man to a good man, but a bad man who is slowly realizing he's done wrong.