With a career that has been built upon writing/directing plays/films that navigate the line between funny and cruel, Martin McDonagh’s (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges) latest should not come as a surprise. He is a rather polarizing filmmaker/writer, isn’t he? You either like him or are offended by his work. Most of his films or plays will ask a lot of you as a viewer. They are rather existential in nature and always emotional. You might feel a little worn out after watching a McDonagh picture. All his work is the type of stuff that will stay with you for a long time. It demands that you digest what you saw rather slowly and mull it all over for a while. You have to be willing to put in the work.
The horrifying, for many reasons, death of her teenage daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton – from television’s Little Big Lies) continues to haunt her mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand – Fargo, Almost Famous), a tough as nails divorced woman. Not only because her daughter is dead, but because the murder remains unsolved many months later. She feels that the police force of Ebbing, Missouri have screwed the pooch here. No wilting flower, this momma is not going to meekly accept that.
So, while driving on a stretch of desolate road an idea pops into her mind about how to do something to light a fire under the police’s butts. The idea is that she will rent for a full year the three billboards on the road and populate them with a message about how she feels that Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson – Natural Born Killers, War for the Planet of the Apes) and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell – Iron Man 2, Everybody’s Fine) have not done enough finding her daughter’s murderer. Obviously, in such a small town, the reaction is immediate. Someone travels on the road no one ever does and then everyone knows about the billboards. Dixon, an officer who has already earned a reputation as a brutal racist, is furious, but Willoughby is a lot more tempered in his reaction.
The billboards attract all kinds of attention. The media jumps on the story, her son’s (Lucas Hedges – Lady Bird, Manchester by the Sea) classmates make his life a living hell, the townspeople are abuzz, but most importantly it leads to the police, especially Willoughby, restarting their investigation. As you might expect from such a grandiose act, things start happening and as time goes on the level of violent acts rise.
Grief, anger, violence, and the tricky subject of revenge are all parts of this story. So that makes it rather dark in nature. Will have you questioning your ethics or morals. Wondering if you even know what is right or wrong anymore. McDonagh is interested in pushing you. This type of film is not for everyone. It is tough. It is also rather timely. In this day and age of Trump, the nonsense that is going on south of the border and with women refusing to remain silent to the abuse anymore with #MeToo, it is an unflinching look at anger in response to unacceptable conditions. It is prodding us to also be angry. To not allow this outrageous behaviour to be normalized. It shows it close up with all warts and ugliness exposed (the entrenched misogyny, the foul language, the violence, the racism, etc.) almost pushing us to action.
Then there are some dark comedy moments sprinkled in which is quite hard to deal with for some audience members. For those in my screening who were giggling like hyenas – stop it! The proper response is to be uncomfortable. This is the entire soul of the film. You are supposed to be uncomfortable. You have not bought a ticket to a romantic comedy.
Though Frances McDormand is her usual solid self and has been celebrated for this performance in many awards ceremonies, I am more tempered in my evaluation as I feel like she is pretty much playing herself here. A sharp tongued woman who does not suffer fools….see! Am I describing the character or Frances McDormand? That being said, she is full in! Meaning she is totally committed to the character.
In some respects I feel McDormand has been typecast though that is not really her fault. And this is not a bad film. Far from it. It has almost a Coen brothers feel to it with all the quirky characters like the redneck cop, a sympathetic small person, a slow witted yet attractive secretary, the physically abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes – Winter’s Bone, Everest) and an even dumber much younger girlfriend (Samara Weaving – from television’s Ash vs. Evil Dead) who does not know the difference between polo and polio.
Though I personally prefer what Harrelson has done with his character (and earned himself an Oscar nomination), most of the attention in regards to the men in the film has been showered upon Rockwell. The showiest part belongs to Rockwell as the slow-witted, racist officer. His turn as Dixon has also been widely celebrated on awards shows. It certainly is a an attention grabber. A police officer with a hair-trigger temper who lives with his mother (Sandy Martin – Napoleon Dynamite, Speed) and seems to revel in slyly edging him towards violent acts. A character that is demanding in that he undergoes changes. Quite large ones. Should we forget all the awful things he has previously done? I don’t think so. That is the whole point of it. Humans are complex. This character is highly flawed and not really likable, but services the story. Or the vision that McDonagh has to raise certain issues or questions.
Three Billboards is a twisted film with no real heroes to root for. They are all survivors who carry their wounds/scars with them into everyday life. A rather human tale, no? It is not a perfect film though holding it to higher standards than we do humans seems unfair.