(4.5 / 5)
“How’s things in the coloured-people-torturing business?”
It’s been five years since Martin McDonagh’s second film, the deeply violent, profoundly meta—, occasionally strangely touching Seven Psychopaths, swept through cinemas. Since then his older brother, John Michael McDonagh, has overtaken him in the cinematic stakes with his second1 and third film.2
The film is, primarily, the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand); a middle-aged divorcee with a resentful teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and a job at the local knick-knack store.5 She used have a daughter, too, whom we learned. She used to have a daughter whom we learn was murdered, raped while dying, and set on fire. They say that time heals all wounds, but in the case of Mildred the passing months and lack of progress in her daughter’s case have served only to royally piss her off.
As such, when she learns of some not-quite prime real estate – three dilapidated advertising billboards down a road you’d reportedly only drive down if lost6 – she seizes the opportunity to flip the bird, metaphorically speaking, at the local constabulary; particularly Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), with whom, as she states on local TV, the buck stops.
In his cowboy hat and patrolman’s sunglasses, Harrelson might look he’s stepped out of a remake of Cool Hand Luke, and perpetually chewing on a wasp to boot, but Sheriff Willoughby is, we’re given to believe, a good man, a decent cop, and well-liked in the community. He’s also dying. None of this concerns, Mildred, however, who regards Willoughby’s imminent demise simply as added incentive to get it solved.
The rest of the local constabulary are not quite so sympathetic. With Officer Jason Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell in the latest in a line of dim-bulb psychos played Sam Rockwell)7 already causing trouble, it seems things are sure to boil over into violence.
McDormand, whose Oscar win for Fargo is now twenty years in the past, flips the Minnesota nice persona of her most famous role on its head8; turning in a vanity-less performance of a woman whose guarded pain and matter-of-fact anti-sociality threatens to alienate everyone around her. A flashback to when her daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), was still alive is played for toxic comedy9, culminating in a twist towards guilt and tragedy.
With her boiler suit and bandanna, lips drawn in a half-smile that’s itself one half a snarl, the character adds one great, if solitary, female character to the McDonagh repertoire; even if the picaresque nature of the tale may prevent McDormand’s performance from being given due consideration by the Academy.
In this, she’s complimented by Rockwell’s Dixon – the film’s secondary protagonist – who, for the most part, seems more concerned with playing video-games or fecklessly trying to intimidate the local ad exec, the gawky Red (Caleb Landry Jones)10 By suggesting that Dixon, a bottom-crawling thug who lives at home with his leaden mother11 may, in fact, have some redemptive qualities.12
A moral fable, much like Calvary – insofar as it depicts a moral turpitude in a small community – Three Billboards lacks, for the most part, the same vividly sketched characters. Instead of Dylan Moran’s drunken businessman memorably urinating on a Holbein, there are more bit parts; like Peter Dinklage as Mildred’s forlorn, would-be paramour13, who otherwise has a rockin’ tasche and a penchant for extravagant shirts.
Featuring much of his returning troupe14, McDonagh fills out the film with “type” actors; like Želijko Ivanek, who, having previously played a perplexed Canadian tourist in In Bruges 15 and a perplexed henchman in Seven Psychopaths16, who brings that same seething exasperation to Officer Connolly: “Don’t say ‘What?’, Dixon, when she comes in calling you a fuckhead!”
Mordantly witty and profanely characterful, Three Billboards shows us humanity, largely, at its worst, but dares to suggest that things can get better; if only we can find a way to stop lashing out.17 The film is a study of characters behaving badly out of deep, unbearable hurt. In doing so, they turn idyllic green fields – made otherwise broad and inviting by cinematographer Ben Davis – into a hell, sometimes almost literally so.18 Carter Burwell, meanwhile,19 infuses his score with a variety of influences: from old Irish folk tunes to full-blown opera and, when Mildred’s in a combative mood, at least a touch of the western.
It’s a strangely appropriate blend for a film that can take a gift-card sentiment – “Anger only begets greater anger” – uttered by Mildred’s abusive ex (a sinewy John Hawkes)20 and imbue it with both irony and sincerity. It’s a theme McDonagh previously touched upon in Seven Psychopaths – with its explicit references to Gandhi’s “an eye for an eye” – and one that’s present throughout his theatrical work, too.
The film might lack moral clarity of Calvary, but it more than makes up for that in fury21. Both hilarious and heartbreaking, it’s a cinematic achievement well worth the advertising space.
- 2014’s Calvary, which told the story of an aggrieved priest (Brendan Gleeson) seeking out his killer-to-be in small-town Ireland.
- War On Everyone, which followed the raucous exploits of two corrupt New Mexico cops (Michael Peña & Alexander Skarsgård), who are nevertheless rarely as bad as the criminals they’re chasing to ground.
- And an understandable affection for Brendan Gleeson, with whom Martin worked on his directorial debut, my beloved In Bruges.
- Most notably in a scene where the lead character curses out a priest (played by Justified‘s Nick Searcy), evoking L.A.’s anti-gang laws to condemn him as a child molester by proxy.
- A place where it’s strangely easy to create tension. Everything is so cheap! Including maybe the cost of human life… *dun dun dun*
- Or retarded.
- It’s a type he’s been playing to solid effect since his breakout role in George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, where he first launched that patented nervous-smile-dangerous-eyes combo.
- Call it Missouri mean.
- As in perhaps the most quotable scene from In Bruges, there’s a taboo-busting over-familiarity with the word “c**t”.
- Not playing a creep for once (!), as most recently in American Made, but rather, the soul of decency.
- Who dispenses such maternal advice, in reference to Mildred, as, “Why not fuck with her friends?”.
- Unlike John Michael in War On Everyone – a film that seems increasingly forgettable and out-of-touch – Martin is careful never to excuse his behaviour or play it for simple humour.
- As in Fargo, whether married or spiteful, McDormand sees to be peculiarly dateable.
- Minus Colin Farrell, who starred in both In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.
- “Vietnamese, what are you talking about ‘the Vietnamese’?”
- “But I’ve got a gun.” “I don’t care.” “That doesn’t make any sense.” “Too bad!”.
The film’s most shocking moment is not one of violence per se, but empathy: when Willoughby coughs suddenly while interrogating Mildred, sending a spray of blood droplets across her face, he’s mortified – “I… I didn’t mean…” – but kindness breaks through her toughened exterior: “I know, baby.”
- More than one of the townsfolk has a certain beginner’s knack when it comes to arson.
- In his third collaboration with McDonagh.
- First imparted by his new beau, the chipper, much younger Penelope (Samara Weaving), who came across it on a bookmark while reading a book on polio (or maybe polo?).
- Though its denouement threatens to undermine the redemptive arc somewhat.