Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
It’s been twenty years since Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her legendary turn as a folksy Minnesota detective in Fargo. Now her superb performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the latest film from In Bruges-director Martin McDonagh, could see her in line for Academy gold again – it’s a powerhouse performance that drives Three Billboards forward even when the film’s plate spinning routine threatens to falter.
McDormand plays Mildred, a blue-collar, tough-as-oak single mother living on the outskirts of a rural town. You get the sense that, even at the best of times, she would be the wrong woman to cross. But this is not the best of times. A year on from the brutal murder of her daughter, Mildred is still stricken with grief, guilt and rage. With no obvious suspect, the trail has gone cold and the local police have no leads. Furious with what she sees as insufficient effort from the cops, Mildred rents three billboards on the edge of town which loudly proclaim their failings in an attempt to put the case back in the public eye and shame the police into taking action.
My daughter Angela was murdered 7 months ago, it seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crimes.
Predictably the billboards draw a strong reaction from the local townspeople. Some are supportive. Others, including amongst her friends and family, are more uneasy, even outraged, not least because they see the billboards as an unfair attack on beloved local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is suffering from terminal cancer. Willoughby himself is embarrassed and hurt by the accusations of inactivity. His reaction, however, is far more restrained than some of his officers, not least Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an inept and bigoted officer who is quite ready to go to war with the grieving mother if necessary.
As fans of McDonagh’s previous work may expect, Three Billboards is a free-wheeling, frequently hilarious, occasionally startlingly violent black-comedy. But it’s got a bigger heart than its predecessors, and its portrayal of small-town relationships is often touching and sharply drawn. In the middle of one particularly heated argument between Mildred and Willoughby, Willoughby suddenly coughs up blood all over Mildred’s face. Instantly the scene deflates – Willoughby is mortified. He apologises, voice trembling, saying he didn’t mean to do it. Mildred lays a hand on his arm – ‘I know you didn’t baby’. For a moment, everything between them is forgotten and they’re back to being the friends they were before the murder. It’s when this dynamic is at work – the sight of a tight-knit community struggling against the ructions caused by a horrific crime – that Three Billboards is at its most potent and powerful.
You didn’t happen to drill a little hole in the dentist today, did you?
Unfortunately, the issue with Three Billboards is that it doesn’t always maintain its focus. As the film wears on – and at two hours Three Billboards feels overstretched – McDonagh throws in new characters and sudden shifts in the plot which eventually threatens to send the whole edifice toppling over. A sub-plot involving a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) with a crush on Mildred seems like little more than an excuse for McDonagh to indulge his obsession with the word ‘midget’. McDormand shares a few great scenes with John Hawkes as her abusive ex-husband, but his ditzy young girlfriend (Samara Weaving) seems to have wandered in from another movie entirely, perhaps Clueless. It’s hard not to feel like the film could have done with a bit of an edit.
Even more problematic is the way certain character developments seem abrupt and unearned – one character in particular performs a final act 180 so abrupt it nearly gave me whiplash. And Three Billboard’s rather glib attitude towards police racism and brutality – which it seems to treat as little more than unfortunate character flaws – is more than a little uncomfortable.
I don’t think them billboards is very fair.
Thankfully the performances throughout are superb. Harrelson in particular is as wonderful as ever, lending his good ol’ boy police chief just enough of a soft, vulnerable edge. Even better is Rockwell (who was also the best thing about McDonagh’s otherwise misfiring Seven Psychopaths). Dixon may be, to put it mildly, a piece of work, but Rockwell makes him an almost endearing presence, for all his idiotic cruelty. His incompetence provides the basis for some of the film’s funniest scenes.
But this is McDormand’s show. As Mildred she is a holy terror, a foul-mouthed chain-smoking angel of righteous vengeance and an early scene where she verbally flays a priest who’s had the temerity to challenge her hiring of the billboards is just one stand-out moment in a film full of them. It’s a reminder that at McDormand’s best there are few actresses in Hollywood who can match up to her – her presence lifts a film that otherwise frustrates nearly as much as it enthrals.