By midlandsmovies, Jan 12 2018 12:28PM
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018) Dir. Martin McDonagh
Is highlighting retribution as important as getting it yourself? Well, deep themes and jet-black comedy abound in this new low-key rural American drama from the British/Irish writer-director of In Bruges Martin McDonagh. Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a put-upon mother who has lost a daughter in a violent rape and murder and, after the investigation stalls, rents three blood-red billboards on the outskirts of town. Not since Fargo has McDormand commanded a screen so fully but her foul-mouthed and impulsive renegade couldn’t be further from Marge Gunderson – although both have an intensity to see justice served.
With the billboards asking why local Sheriff Chief Willoughby (a fantastic supporting turn from Woody Harrelson) hasn’t made any arrests, not even his terminal illness breaks Mildred’s resolve to move her case forward. In addition, Sam Rockwell as Officer Jason Dixon – an actor that against all popular opinion I’ve never particularly warmed to – gives the performance of a lifetime as a drunk, racist policeman trying to maintain some sort of order. Gaining her plenty of attention in the process, Mildred is a driving force in the narrative as she seeks retribution for the depraved death of her daughter whilst she continues to deal with flashes of extreme violence from her ex-husband (John Hawkes as Charlie Hayes) whose own response to the crisis is to date a 19-year old.
The humour comes from both McDormand’s quick and vulgar responses but also through more subtle and loving comedy in her relationship with her son (Lucas Hedges as Robbie Hayes). Extremely protective of him but also reflecting her own sass, the lighter dramatic moments are relief from the themes of passion and unthinking revenge which permeate the film.
[SPOILERS] When Sheriff Willoughby takes his own life owing to cancer, he communicates from beyond the grave in a very personal suicide letter both to his family and to Mildred about her case. In a film where characters seem stereotypical in their introductions, the nuanced screenplay and interesting threads and dramatic turns see characters developing across arcs that audiences will respond to. Sam Rockwell’s hot-headed and inexperienced police officer – who lives with his mum and was held back a year at police academy – takes his temper out on the locals before finding his own enlightenment through forgiveness and correcting mistakes of the past.
As Mildred goes to war with the whole town, her billboards create chaos but stir up strong emotions about redemption. Can we hold onto revenge or is there an inherent destructive force in our search for what’s right? When she attempts to stop her billboards burning – an arson attack sees Mildred battle huge flames with a tiny extinguisher – her small one-woman passions are at odds with the larger forces at work. Yet in both cases, despite the emotional drain, this does not stop her efforts and if anything stokes her fires further.
And it’s McDormand’s complete commitment to the role in every aspect – the tough-talking, the tear-jerking and the solemn reflecting – that centre the film and gives it a star attraction. Her struggles ensure the plot moves briskly and whilst the film’s conclusion feels like an audience can finally take a breather, the reality is simply a temporary calm rather than a newly established equilibrium.
Showing complex struggles from start to finish (including the police, ex-husband, strangers and even the dentist) “Three Billboards” fans the flames of passions and is a brilliant advertisement for the continued talent of McDonagh’s own dark interests. Delivered impeccably by a fantastic cast, the film provides no clear answers but continues the ideas set down within In Bruges. Like that movie, the idea that carrying the pain of past misdemeanours can not only be a detriment to others but mostly to one’s own soul.
Midlands Movies Mike