Fans of the Coen Brothers will enjoy this black comedy from writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), which shares their taste for cacklingly funny dialogue and memorable violence, as well as regular leading lady Frances McDormand and composer Carter Burwell. But this tale of grief-stricken anger begetting anger keeps a lid on the Coens’ more cinematic excesses, becoming instead a moving human drama played out by an impressive supporting cast.
As the cops, Woody Harrelson extends his glowing indie CV and Sam Rothwell shows his range, going from dumb to dignified in the course of the film. Caleb Landry Jones proves his onscreen charisma once again after playing the brother in Get Out. Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) is a delight as Mildred’s unlikely dinner date and Clarke Peters (The Wire) lends his customary gravitas.
But it is Frances McDormand’s powerhouse performance that dominates Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and her role was written specifically with McDormand in mind. She certainly makes the most of it. Bereaved mother Mildred Hayes, wearing an old boiler suit, bandanna and pursed lips, is as tough as old bovver boots. Rude, sweary and whiplash smart, Mildred is on a no-nonsense one-woman mission to find justice for her murdered daughter.
Seven months after teenager Angela’s horrific murder the police force of smalltown Ebbing have drawn a blank. To shame them into action Mildred rents out the three billboards of the film’s title, pasting the following messages in quick succession: RAPED WHILE DYING; AND STILL NO ARRESTS?; HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
Mildred’s action shakes things up, but it also aggravates the townsfolk and makes life more difficult for her long-suffering son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea). Chief Willoughby himself (Harrelson) has more urgent personal problems to contend with than the ‘war’ sparked by Mildred, and his own decisive actions will have far-reaching consequences.
When we first meet Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) he seems to be the opposite of his Chief: a none-too-bright drunken and racist hillbilly. But even he is dragged into the 21st century and forced to change his ways. ‘So how’s it going in the nigger-torturing business?’ asks Mildred when she is hauled down to the police station. ‘Actually, it’s persons of colour torturing now’, replies Dixon.
McDonagh has blackly comic fun with the film’s message, which a minor character has read on a bookmark: ‘anger begets greater anger’. But he also shows us that there is hope beyond the violence, that love can move in mysterious ways and shine a light on even the most hopeless cases. Dixon’s transformation from dimwit to detective is the most extreme example of this and could be criticised as unconvincing, but his redemption is welcomed by the audience.
Mildred herself is told that she ‘never smiles or has a good word to say about anybody’, but McDormand show us a softer side under her cockroach carapace. She might have based her character on Western hard man John Wayne, but Mildred is kind to animals. She gently puts right an overturned beetle and reserves her tenderness for a chance encounter with a deer. In McDonagh’s hands, though, even the cute animal stuff is barbed: ‘I got some Doritos’, offers Mildred, ‘but they might kill you ’cause they’re kinda pointy’.