DIR/WRI: Martin McDonagh • PRO: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Martin McDonagh • DOP: Ben Davis • ED: John Gregory • MUS: Carter Burwell • DES: Inbal Weinberg • CAST: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Martin McDonagh, the writer-director and playwright behind In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, returns with his most mature film yet. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, stars a never better Frances McDormand (Fargo) as Mildred, a mother whose daughter was raped and murdered. Seven months later, the police – fronted by the beloved Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and violent, racist Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) – have been unable to find the culprit. This leads Mildred to rent three billboards and put up posters as a means of keeping the case in the public eye. However, the people of Ebbing to not take kindly to the signs criticising the sheriff as Willoughby is dying.
Less comic than his previous films (although what is left is wonderfully dark), Three Billboards feels like a return to the tone of McDonagh’s early plays, particularly the tragedy within Beauty Queen of Leenane. The violence hits harder. There are no easy answers or clear-cut heroes and villains. Much of the first three quarters of the film is highlighting the darkness of the world: violence, racism, sexism, hatred and death. The kind characters – Sheriff Willoughby, billboard owner Red (another note-worthy turn by Caleb Landry Jones), Peter Dinklage’s James – all suffer while the angry and abrasive wreak havoc. At points, one even questions Mildred’s attitude, wondering whether her actions, committed out of utter anger and despair, are constructive or whether they just beget more anger.
However, this section of the drama is far from a miserable slog. McDonagh is such a talented writer that, through sheer skill at crafting dialogue and character, he makes the darkness engrossing. In fact, he even manages in the final act to transform the film into a story about forgiveness, hope and human connection.
Also worth pointing out about the finale is how certain characters completely change their attitude and perspective in a way which feels natural and not saccharine. For example, Sam Rockwell’s Dixon is such a realistically abhorrent character throughout. While watching, one thinks there is no possible way he could be redeemed. Yet, when the moment happens, one buys the transformation – on account of McDonagh’s ability for subtly foreshadowing future developments and Rockwell’s multi-layered performance.
McDonagh has come under criticism from some quarters for his perceived inability to write female characters, a critique he himself highlights in the meta-as-hell Seven Psychopaths. Here, each woman has a personality and voice, whether it be Abbie Cornish’s tragic wife of the dying Sheriff or Mildred’s ex-husband’s 19-year-old girlfriend (Samara Weaving bringing a beam of light to the dark world).
However, it’s McDormand’s show. The character of Mildred feels so well-realised and lived-in. She’s a woman who has lost the most important thing to her and cares little for how society perceives her quest for justice. There’s even a sense that the anger and determination to find her daughter’s killer is the only thing keeping her functional. McDormand matches the material and even enhances it. The Coen brothers’ muse brings physicality and venom to her acts of violence, both physical and through dialogue (a cutting monologue delivered to an interfering priest is one for the ages). Yet, she also imbues the character with a vulnerability and sensitivity in the quieter, more introspective moments.
Three Billboards may be Martin McDonagh’s most impressive work behind the camera to date. While it lacks the non-stop cracking one-liners of In Bruges or the stylised wackiness of Seven Psychopaths, in their place is a host of well-fleshed out, fascinating characters that each could be the star of their own spin-off. The themes it tackles are complex and while McDonagh may not have all the answers, the emotion he musters in the audience as he explores them perhaps tells us all we need to know.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is released 12th January 2018