Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, Sandy Martin
Words: Nathan Scatcherd
Playwright and director Martin McDonagh appears – like most creative types – to be fixated on certain recurring themes: sin and redemption; the fundamental murkiness of morality; and pitch black comedy arising either from jolts of violence (usually of the incidental, clumsy variety) or a smattering of lovingly-written profane dialogue.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like McDonagh’s second best cinematic expression of all these hang ups (In Bruges is still his best film by quite some way for my money), and it’s probably the most subtle, ‘grown up’ entry in his filmography so far, but it mostly feels like a good film stretching a little bit too self-consciously to be a really great one.
Our story is that of Mildred Hayes (McDormand) – a fierce, tough woman who erects the titular three billboards publicly calling out the local police department over their failure to find the person responsible for her daughter’s rape and murder a few months previously. The subsequent furore over the billboards brings Hayes into conflict with – among others – well-meaning, cancer-stricken Sheriff Willoughby (Harrelson) and racist troglodyte officer Dixon (Rockwell), and topples the first domino towards both violent confrontation and the possibility of forgiveness and personal growth.
The film constantly plays with the audience’s perception of its characters and their respective moralities – and any subsequent expectations of where the plot will go and what will happen to whom – to the point where it actually starts to feel slightly smug and self-satisfied. You can almost hear the gears turning in McDonagh’s head – “what can I do here that they won’t expect?” – and funnily enough, once that card has been played a couple of times, the unexpected begins to be, well, expected. The occasional self-indulgence unfortunately extends to some of the writing; McDonagh’s playwright impulse of giving his characters sharp, clever-clever dialogue slightly undercuts the naturalistic hard-luck feel he appears to shoot for in every other aspect of the film (and one line of dialogue actually made me roll my eyes with its ham-fisted, obvious attempt to be shocking coming off instead as slightly embarrassing, like when a kid way overuses a swear word they just learnt).
I’m aware this all sounds very negative; if nothing else, I’m glad to get Billboards’ relatively minor stumbles out of the way so I can move onto the good stuff, which does fortunately make up the majority of the film (if not, admittedly, the majority of this review).
The performances really are strong all round, with McDormand wonderfully portraying the frequently caustic but always understandable brew of rage, regret and determination driving Mildred, and Rockwell doing great work as ostensible ‘bad guy’ Dixon. His overall character arc has drawn some frankly moronic controversy (no spoilers), and perhaps the places his character goes to would indeed be difficult to buy in the hands of a lesser actor. Happily, Rockwell absolutely nails both the dim-witted aggressiveness and the more tender, humanising moments that make up officer Dixon, and by the end of the film it becomes clear that this is every bit as much his story as Mildred’s (also, hey, Sandy Martin doing a more talkative variation on her role as Mac’s mum in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia!).
Billboards is beautifully shot by Ben Davis, finding a stroke of melancholy in its images of rural working class America. The road alongside which the billboards are set up looks like one of the loneliest stretches of gravel in America, maybe the world.
The film also has a vein of McDonagh’s trademark caustic humour running throughout, and the funnier moments generally land. At the very least they perform the valuable function of stopping some of the more emotionally heavy details of the plot from overtaking the film’s overall tone, balancing deftly on the knife’s edge that makes the ‘black dramedy’ so difficult to get right as a (sort of?) genre.