Director: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, John Hawkes, Samara Weaving, Kerry Condon
Plot: A grieving mother (McDormand) buys three billboards and posts antagonist messages to the police, in order to revitalise the investigation into her daughter’s murder.
There is an argument to be made that there are certain subjects that shouldn’t be used for comedic purposes. The kind of crass jokes hidden behind the thin veil of ‘it’s just banter’ that seem needlessly cruel and, most of the time, terribly unfunny. However, there is another line of thought that says that it is possible to tell a joke about dark subjects, but the darker the material, the better written the joke has to be. Essentially if you want to veer into black comedy, you need to be careful with your script. Therefore, when Martin McDonagh prepares to direct his third feature film, a story about a girl who was raped while being burnt to death, he better make sure his script is golden.
However, following the incredible In Bruges and the weaker yet solid Seven Psychopaths, it comes as no surprise to know that McDonagh has once again crafted an astonishingly powerful script. It is the kind of rare film that might focus around a horrific murder, but feels in no rush to solve the mystery behind the story. In fact, for a long time you are looking at Rockwell’s racist cop, Dinklage’s socially inept alcoholic and Landry Jones’s shifty billboard salesman and wondering if there will be a late act twist that they are actually behind it all. But Three Billboards is not that kind of movie. This is less about tracking down the killer and more about the emptiness left behind after death. McDonagh has far too much depth to cover with his remarkably complex characters. Frances McDormand is given the performance of a lifetime as a mother hollowed out by her grief and made endearing by his stubbornness to simply go into the night quietly. Her daughter died horrifically and she refuses to let the killer get away with it. However, the director starts off her moral high ground by slowly allowing the character to descend into the role of the monster. It starts off with her verbally assaulting everyone who reaches out to help her if they are not giving her what she wants and transcending into some shocking mid-movie set-pieces. You have to feel for the poor priest that gets in her way and especially the tired cop she blames for all this. Woody Harrelson’s kind-hearted Officer Willoughby is one of the actor’s most outstanding roles yet, as he quietly shines as a police officer haunted by the one case he couldn’t solve, wanting solace as the terminal cancer sucks the last months of his life out of him. While McDormand’s plight is constantly earning sympathy, her anger is lashing out in the wrong areas, making her son’s life a misery, turning a town against her and putting innocent people into the firing line. At first, her rage is somewhat amusing, as she stoically puts the world to rights, but it isn’t long before her inconsolable misery becomes the film’s biggest obstacle.
Yet you never hate anyone in this film. Not even Sam Rockwell’s racist, dim-witted police officer, who is responsible for some of the film’s foulest on-screen actions, is entirely unredeemable. There isn’t even so many moments where characters see the light. While some might say Rockwell’s character undertakes one action that puts him in the role of unlikely hero, that revelation is followed up by a decision that arguable suggests the character has learnt nothing. And while McDormand slowly realises her outlook on life is causing her to suffer more than anyone else, it could be argued that she leaves this film as she entered it: a grieving, hateful woman too far gone to be capable of anything but despair. Yet McDonagh’s screenplay doesn’t go as far as judging anyone, merely showing the audience their lives from afar. In fact, they are almost redeemed by their naivety rather than their actions. Sam Rockwell’s character might be an abusive racist, but he is so narrow-minded, he is strangely forgiven by the fact he knows nothing else. He spends his afternoons seeing no one but his mother, whose only knowledge of the world comes from a select number of television programmes and an outdated view on life. To call this a film about redneck morons is unfair, because a few of them are wise in other ways. While McDormand’s focus is in the wrong places, she does show resilience and cunning when it comes to causing chaos. Maybe McDonagh’s film is about understanding why these flawed people are so antagonistic and, like Officer Willoughby with his seemingly lost cause of a partner, trying to nurture them rather than allowing them to revel in their ignorance or hate.
Final Verdict: Three Billboards is bound to be praised for the deep performances, but the script is the real hero, another outstanding entry from Martin McDonagh.