In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and now Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Martin McDonagh is a comic talent with no parallel: an idiosyncratic voice mixing the most topical and brutal situations with almost slapstick surrealist humour.
In Three Billboards, he casts Francis McDormand as Mildred Hayes: a stubborn rock sitting on the smalltown tracks, threatening to derail the southern community of Ebbing. Her daughter, as we briskly learn – there’s no time for small talk – has been brutally murdered, raped, and burned alive. The police department haven’t managed to make a single arrest, instead embroiling themselves in various racial scandals. In an attempt to attract national furore, Hayes rents three billboards on the approach to the town, painting ‘RAPED WHILE DYING’, ‘AND STILL NO ARRESTS’, ‘HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?’ in stark red and black. The stage is now set for an almighty battle of wits between an angry mother and the full force of authority.
From the get go, the film adopts a freewheeling idiosyncrasy that runs into all sorts of unexpected places, refusing to play ball with our hardened preconceptions about genre and narrative. Not only does it stay away from the central crime as much as possible, but McDonagh also throws no shortage of curveballs towards the audience. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) turns out to be a reasonable man with good intentions and terminal cancer. Weren’t we supposed to hate him? A racist police man with a mummy complex (Sam Rockwell) seems hellbent on beating the shit out of anyone that stands with Mildred; but begins to morph into something more noble. Are we supposed to like him? And the sensationalist news brings some very unsavoury characters to town. Are they trolls or violent criminals? But it’s the hopeless realisation that perhaps the crime is unsolvable, and that Mildred is a bad, aggressive person with a pathological case of misandry that comes as the biggest gut punch –Three Billboards may be a comedy, but it’s one of tragic proportions.
It’s a picture determined to eschew traditional narrative beats, and instead present a Blue Velvet-esque expose of American small-town life. The spectre of police violence looms over Ebbing like a sinister mist, obscuring the bitching, adultery, and segregation that its residents engage in with alarming regularity. In a town where people live and die within the same few blocks, family becomes everything, and alliances die hard – ‘everyone’s with you Mildred’, states Willoughby, ‘but nobody’s with you on this’. The townsfolk form a hive mind, but seem petrified to express it for fear of provoking the beast.
McDonagh has produced extremely funny piece of work – to the point where the theatre broke out into spontaneous rounds of applause at the jokes. He’s a sharp writer, and takes things to the next level – a particular quip about rhetorical questions, and an extended analogy about the priesthood being equivalent to LA street gangs had the audience rolling in the aisles. But, on the other side of the coin, it’s a film that I cried at: he has always been one to admit the pointlessness of life, and does so in some of the most painful scenes I witnessed at LFF, so much so that I’ve heard people refuse to call it a ‘comedy’ at all.
McDormand puts in career-best work here. Mildred is, in almost every way, a believable character: bereaved, bitter, and broken. She’s like a revolving diamond: within the duration of Three Billboards, we get to see the light glint off her in an impressive number of angles. We sympathise with her, yet we admonish her for her failings. Only a masterful actor can have this effect on the audience – and, in many ways, we’re able to put our own woes upon Mildred’s persona. By the time she’s throwing Molotov cocktails, is it too late to turn back? The glint in McDormand’s eye would suggest that perhaps she wants to, but that it would be a rejection of pride and principle, the very reasons why the billboards were put up in the first place. What a dilemma…. But we, as the audience, are made privy to this information through some of the most skillful character acting I’ve ever seen: McDormand is Mildred. Likewise, Sam Rockwell, usually a casually comic presence, is cast here as a man of sickening violence – but a man who we might say was a product of a particular system and upbringing. The character arc of his Officer Dixon is long and hard, but ultimately incredibly rewarding – the believability of the persona in his final scenes of the film really serves to prove that Rockwell is a criminally underused player.
And, although it may stray into the explosive violence we’re used to from a McDonagh film, Three Billboards is kept so much more grounded than we might expect. Locations are shot in a Coens-esque way, but they still maintain their realism; the soundtrack oozes country and western; and when somebody gets whacked with a baton, the result is more pathetic and sickening than thrilling and comic, as it might have been in In Bruges. True, the script is a little too opportunistic in lampooning the institutional racism of the police force, that’s kinda the flavour of the month, but it rings of harsh truth. Altogether, the atmosphere and tone of the piece is so much more relatable than we would expect from the plot – these wounds feel disturbingly real.
I admit, when the trailer released for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I figured the director had lost his way, that he’d made an inferior, Americanised rehash of his older material. But I couldn’t have been more wrong: this is a more topical, more grounded, and fuller piece of work than either ‘In Bruges’ or ‘Seven Psychopaths’. And, in leaving the zany Tarantino narratives behind, he’s brought us his most perfect balance between emotional pathos and savage humour yet.