‘Anger begets more anger’; that’s the running theme of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s even spelt out to the audience in the film’s final act via a 19-year-old intern (Samara Weaving), who appears to the only one not effected by the events playing out in her small town. Events set off by one mother’s righteous anger.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is that mother, and seven months ago her daughter was violently murdered on a night out. Apoplectic with fury at the lack of progress being made by the local constabulary, Mildred ensures that her daughter’s name won’t disappear into the town’s collective fog of memory. Hiring three disused billboards that run across a small piece of road, Mildred manages to set out her rage in the two-foot-high letters that recount her daughter’s murder, whilst placing the lack of progress firmly on the shoulders of Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Whilst Willoughby takes the accusations in his stride – admitting to feeling impotent in his inability to catch the killer, whilst also battling cancer – Mildred’s stunt causes ripples in the community, including Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and even her own son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges, Ladybird).
Whilst her public accusations are something any bereaved parent would contemplate, it’s clear that the rage percolating inside her threatens to consume Mildred. When the clergy comes to visit, after it’s made clear that her behaviour is making Robbie a victim in his own school, Mildred spits fire and brimstone at the priest until he leaves. There is nothing and no one that will steer her off her path of justice.
Directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), Three Billboards may come as a surprise to those left cold by his last feature, Seven Psychopaths. Mining a similar vein of pitch black humour, there was something uneven about Seven Psychopaths. It felt like a big boy’s club, where women were the punchline. Three Billboards sees the director making amends with a lead character who refuses to be the butt of anyone’s joke. Channelling John Wayne, McDormand is astonishing, managing to be sympathetic whilst being seemingly cruel to those around her. In some ways, she’s a lot like Colin Farrell’s philosophising hitman in In Bruges. A sudden flashback in the film’s opening act, sheds further light on where Mildred is mentally. We often remember the harsh words we say to people, more than the good ones, and McDonagh plays this out in a scene which highlights how Mildred’s rage may actually be aimed at herself just as much as anybody else.
This complexity of character is not just reserved to Mildred, the citizens of Ebbing are also not merely one note affairs. There’s Peter Dinklage’s sweet pool hound, who seems appalled at the suggestion of taking advantage of Mildred in her hour of need, even when he clearly does so. The fact he doesn’t do it whilst stereotypically twirling his moustache and muttering ‘Not all men’ doesn’t make him any less wrong.
Rockwell, who is always great to see on screen, is particularly good as he transforms from a dim-witted, obnoxious and violent mama’s boy, into something much different. It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of Rockwell wrestle with Dixon’s new persona. McDonagh seems quite happy to leave him to his own devices till the film plays out.
Harrelson as the tough but fair sheriff does his best scenes beside McDormand. There’s a real sense of presence between the two characters, who have probably danced to this tune long before Mildred’s daughter was murdered. An interrogation scene between the two manages to elicit anger, laughs and tears from its audience in the space of five minutes; Mildred switching from self-righteous matriarch to soothing mother in a flash.
Whilst the film will likely draw people to it via red band trailers that paint the film as Grumpy Middle-Aged Woman: The Movie, those who come for than just swearing – and there is a lot of swearing – will find a heartfelt portrait of humanity buried in the colourful colloquialisms. Worthy of all the nominations being laid at its feet, Three Billboards is a cracking start to cinema in 2018.