Released: January 2018
Director: Martin McDonagh
Three Billboards starts from an unprepossessingly bleak premise. It’s 8 months on from the rape and murder of a young girl, and her mother, tired of the lack of action from the local police department decides to act herself and publishes her dismay on three billboards on the outskirts of the town. From this small seed, the always impressive Martin McDonagh weaves a complicated story of small communities, justice, vengeance, forgiveness and grief.
While having such a clear-cut bad event as the basis for the film could make it easy for this to drift into a didactic morality tale, McDonagh manages to create characters that are all deeply flawed in a very human way, however right they may be about certain things. This means, even as the revenge and anger between people builds throughout the film, as a viewer you are learning that nothing is simple.
Mildred’s actions as a bereaved mother may have good causes, but which one takes things too far is difficult to pinpoint, although few would argue that none of them do. She is undoubtedly the heroine of the piece, but as one of the characters tells her bitterly, she never has a nice word to say about anyone.
Sam Rockwell‘s stupid, prejudiced cop Dixon is thoroughly unpleasant, and in any other film all you would want is to see him get his come-uppance. Here however, the viewer is shamed by watching an act of forgiveness from one of his victims that was hard to give and arguably undeserved.
With already one major award under her belt, Frances McDormand deserves a clean sweep for her hypnotic portrayal of Mildred, the angry, stubborn mother who will not let anyone make excuses or avoid their responsibilities. Her ability to let a taught, reigned-in performance tell you everything her vocally reticent character won’t brings Mildred to life, and gives real weight to the things she does say.
The film is foul-mouthed, that is true, but it never feels forced or misplaced, a trick McDonagh also pulled off in his previous outings In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. It’s not as clearly comedic as his previous films either, but when it is funny, which is surprisingly often, it is very funny.
Weaker moments come mostly from the only real attempt in the film to show something purely good, in the form of the family life of the Chief of Police Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson. Harrelson himself is superb in both cop and community figurehead mode, but as a husband it’s all just a bit weaker. This is probably largely due to playing opposite Abbie Cornish, who really did not get on well with this role. Her accent wanders all over the place, which is especially distracting in what should be some pretty dramatic scenes, and there was absolutely no chemistry between her and Harrelson.
In fairness to Cornish, her character was lacking any depth or real personality, which is strange as everyone else gets so much of it. While there are justifications to be made for showing the homelife of Willoughby, it’s hard to see how removing these weak scenes altogether wouldn’t improve the whole film.
Other side characters are much better developed, with stand out parts being the ever positive James, played perfectly by Peter Dinklage, and the towns ad man Red, played by Caleb Landry Jones. As the town’s only person with dwarfism, it’s clear James gets both shit and well-intentioned but patronising talk all the time, but he stays friendly and chipper throughout. The moment when he does break is so small and slight compared to Mildred’s, but it is heartbreaking to watch such a positive guy so cruelly disappointed.
This is a film you can watch over and over. There is so much to chew over, to enjoy and to laugh at. It gives much to reflect on , and seems very timely, with what feels like so much anger and resistance to nuance in the world right now.