Martin McDonagh is a highly respected Irish playwright who, in 2008, took his talents to the big screen and has now written and directed three feature length films. His first film was 2008’s In Bruges, for which McDonagh was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. That was a dark comedy/drama about two hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) hiding out in the titular Belgian town after a job gone wrong. Then, he made 2012’s dark comedy Seven Psychopaths about a writer (Farrell again) working on a screenplay about psychopaths who gets involved with his friend’s (Sam Rockwell) beef with a mobster (Woody Harrelson). Now comes Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a darkly funny drama about grief and survival.
Three Billboards is about Mildred Hayes (an excellent Frances McDormand, a Best Actress Oscar winner in 1997 for Fargo), a blunt, clever woman who does not suffer fools gladly. The year before the story begins, her daughter, Angela (played briefly in flashback by Kathryn Newton, from HBO’s Big Little Lies and the final season of AMC’s excellent Halt and Catch Fire), was raped and murdered alongside a lonely stretch of road. The local police, led by Chief Bill Willoughby (two-time Oscar nominee Harrelson), have been unable to find any leads in their investigation. In a desperate attempt to get her daughter’s murder back into the public spotlight, Mildred rents the three billboards right near the spot her daughter was killed and puts up a series of messages asking Willoughby why nothing has been accomplished. This leads to conflict between Mildred and the police, specifically abusive and racist Deputy Jason Dixon (Rockwell).
Three Billboards (111 minutes without the end credits) is the most subtle and least funny of McDonagh’s films, thus far. There are absolutely moments of humor, mostly coming from Mildred’s no nonsense approach to dealing with the rest of the world, Dixon’s idiocy and Willoughby’s sense of humor about the absurdities in his life. But the film is really about Mildred’s attempts to remain hopeful and continue living her life after the brutal death of her daughter. It is not a mystery. It is not about a murder investigation or the hunt for a killer. Finding out who killed her daughter is not suddenly going to turn Mildred’s life around and McDonagh knows this and never simplifies the emotions or themes in his story to make them tidy. Life is complicated; death is even more so.
Mildred is clearly carrying a lot of feeling with her and McDormand is brilliant at showing a woman just barely hanging on. She loves her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges, currently costarring in the indie film Lady Bird) and resents her ex-husband (played with open hostility by John Hawkes, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee in 2011 for Winter’s Bone). But the majority of her energies are focused on her late daughter. If only the person responsible for her death was caught and punished, maybe she could move on with her life. It is not that she dislikes Willoughby, she just sees that his way has not achieved results.
There is already conflict between the citizens and the police, mainly due to the short-tempered Dixon. Rockwell, a personal favorite of mine, is oddly likable as a guy completely incapable of controlling his impulses. He loves Willoughby like a father, so the billboards are a personal affront to him. Since the town already dislikes him, it puts several of them on Mildred’s side. The other important characters include Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones, who has been very busy this year between this, Get Out, The Florida Project, American Made and Showtime’s Twin Peaks revival), the guy who rents the billboards out to Mildred, and James (the invaluable Peter Dinklage, Tyrion on HBO’s Game of Thrones), who sees something loveable inside Mildred and is the victim of derision in the town due to his dwarfism. McDonagh is a very generous writer, so nearly every character of importance is given at least one moment to shine. None more so than McDormand.
Mildred is a rich character and McDormand is fantastic. Three Billboards is not a safe film. It deals with difficult subject matter straight on. Mildred acts the way she does because she is afraid people will forget about her daughter. She feels guilt, grief and anger about what happened and needs to know that someone else cares. Frances McDormand handles McDonagh’s blunt and, at times, very vulgar dialogue extremely well. His language, performed well, can sound like poetry. He seems to have found an entire cast skilled at reading his dialogue, but McDormand is a wonder. If her performance tilted too much toward comedy, it would have undercut the emotion. It she played it too seriously, her character would have been tonally disconnected to the other characters. She, and McDonagh, find the perfect balance. Her Mildred is brave, smart, witty and exasperating. It is one of the best performances of the year.
And it is put in service of a really good film. It is not my favorite of McDonagh’s films so far (that would be In Bruges); it seems to lose focus a little too much down the stretch. But when it works, it really works. It is funny smart and surprising. He has only made three films but, with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh has become a must-see director for me.
4¼ out of 5
Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes
Sam Rockwell as Dixon
Woody Harrelson as Willoughby
Lucas Hedges as Robbie
Caleb Landry Jones as Red Welby
Peter Dinklage as James
John Hawkes as Charlie
Zeljko Ivanek as Desk Sergeant
Clarke Peters as Abercrombie
Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh