Martin McDonagh gets small-town America in his sights in his seraring follow up to Seven Psychopaths. It’s been five years since his previous film, but Three Billboards is worth the wait with towering performances from Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell and a profanity strewn script that will make you laugh, cry and quite possibly offend half its audiences as much as it delights the other half.
Seven months after the rape and murder of her daughter, Mildred Hayes (McDormand) has had enough of the inertia of the police investigation. Seven months with no answers and no arrests. With the police having given up, Mildred decides to pay for a series of messages to be plastered high on three disused billboards outside her home. This most public of provocations, and the personal prodding of the town’s Chief Willougby begins a feud between Mildred and the police department, not helped by Mildred’s foul mouth and stubborn, but righteous refusal to accept that the cops could give up on catching her daughter’s killer.
What Three Billboards isn’t, is a procedural. The police here, much to the growing frustration of Mildred do no investigating. It would be easy to label them as the bad guys and McDonagh’s script does give American police a kicking at every opportunity. Cutting right to the core of America’s troubled relationship between the police and African Americans, Mildred sometimes sounds like an avenging angel and with her inflammatory remarks, it’s a surprise she doesn’t start a riot.
But McDonagh’s characters are never quite so simple and whether it’s Harrelson’s seemingly decent police chief or even Sam Rockwell’s considerably less decent redneck sidekick Officer Dixon, these characters reveal some very unexpected depths. McDonagh finds ways of provoking sympathy for even the most psychotic of characters, and Three Billboards is fascinating in the way it plays with audiences’ allegiances. Even Mildred with her completely sympathetic mission is irascible and dangerously driven by guilt, anger and hatred.
If Three Billboards weren’t so hilarious, it would be insufferably bleak. Its characters are almost uniformly difficult to like. They are racist, homophobic and the dialogue is liberally peppered with insults, the harshest language imaginable and all events are overshadowed by the tragedy at the film’s heart. But it’s in the wonderful language and the timing of cuts that McDonagh finds plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.
Meanwhile, Mildred’s pain is written all over McDormand’s face. It’s a brilliant performance filled with stony looks, some memorable monologues (watch her destroy a priest) and at least one howl of primal rage and misery. Harrelson is fantastic support as the Chief distracted by his own serious illness, and better still is Rockwell who is by turns despicable and hilarious.
Three Billboards is far more interested in exploring the characters, their moral codes and the psyche of small-town America than it is with solving the murder at its heart. While it’s refreshing to not show and dwell on the details of the tragic event that has ruined Mildred’s life, it’s also symptomatic of a film that, Mildred notwithstanding, has sadly little time for rounded female characters.
It’s a minor complaint though. Three Billboards is a wonderfully tragic comedy that gifts McDormand with an incredible character. Expect to see both Rockwell and McDormand in awards conversations next year. Timely and abrasive, it’s a must see.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: MARTIN MCDONAGH / STARRING: FRANCES MCDORMAND, WOODY HARRELSON, SAM ROCKWELL, PETER DINKLAGE, ABBIE CORNISH, CALEB LANDRY JONES / RELEASE DATE: 12TH JANUARY 2018
Expected Rating: 8