Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Director: Martin McDonagh
Running Time: 115 mins
Synopsis: Several months have passed since Mildred Hayes’s (McDormand) daughter was found raped and murdered. The local police force, led by the well loved Chief Willoughby (Harrelson), have found no leads. Angry and grieving, Mildred pays for 3 controversial signs to be put up outside town singling out Willoughby’s failings. Their effect leads to resentment, confusion and violence.
There is a scene early on in Martin McDonagh’s potently raw Three Billboards that sums up perfectly not only the adept skill of the filmmaking here but the complex emotional themes that drive it. The angry and sorrow-filled Mildred (McDormand) has been brought into the local Sheriff’s office after an “unfortunate” incident with the resident dentist. Sitting across from her is Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) and their encounter is fraught with barely contained animosity, frustrated anger and a soupcon of darkened humour. Unexpectedly the Sheriff coughs, spraying Mildred with a sprinkle of blood, unwelcome evidence of the crippling cancer that is killing him. In that moment there is a turn from both of them that is surprising and powerful. She comforts him, reassures him and in her eyes we see not anger but care. It is a touching moment of compassion, a feeling that permeates the entire film. Three Billboards isn’t about bad people doing badder things to other people, it is about hurt, pained and grieving individuals in all their complexities. A beautifully played scene in a film rife with them.
The reason for all this pain is a simple one. Several months previously Mildred Hayes lost her daughter to a horrific rape and murder, a crime for which the police can find no culprit despite their best efforts. Mildred doesn’t see it this way, determined to keep the case in their minds by funding a series of billboards, just outside of town, that ask the question,”why no arrests, Chief Willoughby?” For the townsfolk and the police department, it is that last part that stings. A decent hard working copper, Willoughby did his job to the best he could but, as is so often the case, the evidence just isn’t there. In a way Mildred knows this, she feels no ill will towards him, but to her it is a rallying cry for her sorrow, her desperation and her need for justice. And a rallying cry always works better when there is a figurehead to pin it on. A simple conceit but one that reveals hidden depths to the players in its wake.
As Mildred Frances McDormand delivers a ferociously nuanced performance. Perpetually scowled and capable of acts that shock (witness her brutally kick a young girl right in the crotch) she is a walking ball of fire. The anger she feels takes a hold, not just for her loss but in the devastating knowledge of what her last words were to her daughter (revealed in agonising flashbacks). However despite all this rage there is a warmth to Mildred that McDormand delicately plays. We see it in her loving nudge of an up-turned insect, or the mournful appearance of an ethereal deer, and yes in that compassionate moment with the ailing Chief. McDonagh, who also scripts here, has constructed a deeply multi-faceted portrayal of grief, one that McDormand conveys with every fibre of her soul.
It is not just in her we see the shattering results of grief though. Chief Willoughby feels it, in the sadness he faces for not having solved the crime and in his own failing body-coming to terms with the eventual loss his young family will have to endure. Harrelson has always been a phenomenally adept performer, here turning on a dime from playful banter, through angry exhaustion to mournful despair. The roads his character take are unexpectedly poignant, McDonagh reminding us that there are no true bad guys here, other than the unseen killer. But he has no interest in such cliched procedural moments, driven to look at the surrounding tornado of grief instead. One seemingly bad egg does present itself though, Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dickson. An immature, bigoted Mummy’s boy, prone to racial outbursts and violent tendencies. He sees nothing but hatred, unwilling to accept that others may be suffering, and exacerbated by a toxic mother who only seeks to encourage his closeted thinking. The turns his character take should be left for you to discover, but he is the one who changes the most from this experience and Rockwell gives it all he’s got. Capable of moving from histrionic outrage to quiet contemplation and deep regret with delicacy, and some of the films most killer lines.
Just as in his debut film, In Bruges, McDonagh knows his way around an acerbic volatile line, his penchant for graphic colourful language in full swing. What kills more though than the wickedly funny strokes of dialogue are the immediate shift changes he makes, sometimes within the space of a sentence. Moments you expect to go one way veer sharply to the left and then back again. Violent potential gives way to measured words, or quiet exchanges end up back-dropped with bouts of brutal assault. This unpredictability keeps the film constantly in flux, almost akin to the way grief morphs your emotions in ways you cannot control, and helps to rivet you to the film despite the perhaps slightly overlong running time. McDonagh keeps his camera tightly focused, but is not afraid to go for some beautifully evocative shots when the time calls for it. It certainly shows a growing confidence and patience after the confusingly self centred Seven Psychopaths.
There is also time for the exemplary ensemble to get their moments in the sun. Standouts include Caleb Landry Jones playing against his usual weaselly type as the strong willed billboard manager, undeservedly suffering the consequences for doing his job. Peter Dinklage shows up in a minor role as a would-be suitor for Mildred, a kind-hearted loving soul in a town full of folk far from it. Strong work is also given by John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish and Lucas Hedges, all bit players in Mildred’s saga but all people dealing with pain in their own particular ways.
It is rather fitting that after the intolerant hate fuelled year of 2017, the New Year should see one if its first films look for the light amidst the dark. McDonagh deciding that hope, love and compassion can be all too easily forgotten, and yet found when we least expect it. Three Billboards understands that human beings can be bitter, vile, angry creatures but also tender, caring and capable of change. Its ending offers up no easy firm answers, to the frustration of some in the audience no doubt, but it nobly confirms that deciding what sort of person you will be or the actions you will take are forever in flux. That grief can never find justice, it just exists alongside you. All you need to decide is how much of you it replaces.
Verdict: Three Billboards is bitingly funny, fiercely emotional and shockingly unpredictable. Debating notions of grief, anger and forgiveness with an acerbic wit. Give Frances McDormand all the awards.