Director: Martin McDonagh
Talent: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Released: 12 January
Martin McDonagh’s third feature, Three Billboards… has already enjoyed rapturous festival receptions, and seems certain to swell the awards cabinets of its writer-director and at least some of its large and colourful cast. A kind of contemporary western, the film’s righteous centre is Mildred (a ferocious Frances McDormand), a bereaved mother seeking justice for the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. When the local police fail to apprehend the culprit, Mildred hires the eponymous billboards, upon which she places a message querying the commitment of local Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to his job. In so doing, she incurs the wrath of brutal but incompetent deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), and of the community at large, whose sympathy for Mildred’s plight does not extend to condoning her vilification of Willoughby — particularly as he is dying of cancer.
McDonagh lays out his fairly complex scenario with clarity and concision, broadening the scope of the story to include a motley crew of Ebbing residents (including Peter Dinklage and Caleb Landry Jones) who provide a certain degree of perspective on Mildred’s ruthless absolutism. Though the film’s plot squiggles appealingly, it’s thematically very neat — perhaps too neat. Its point is made early and underscored often, until even the cheap seats are sure to get it.
Throughout, though, McDonagh’s scenes play so brilliantly as discrete entities that it almost doesn’t matter that they end up feeling sequential rather than cumulative. It isn’t until well past the half-way mark one realises there’s a certain formula at work here: scenes build to a peak, then a hairpin turn takes them somewhere else. Rinse. Repeat. Sometimes the device works brilliantly, as in a furious row between Mildred and Willoughby that takes on an entirely different cast after a sudden reminder of his ailing health. At other points, the pattern is too obvious. The second a Catholic priest appears, for instance, a countdown may as well appear on screen until Mildred brings up sexual abuse. Here, it’s not that Mildred isn’t right — it’s that her transgression is predictable, and therefore not particularly transgressive.
Elsewhere, the film’s sharp early comments on race relations are rather blunted by the side-lining of its handful of black characters, while its sexual politics are oddly flimsy. Abbie Cornish, a charismatic and perennially underserved Australian actress, gets the thin end of the wedge as Willoughby’s angelic, much younger wife.
For all this, McDonagh’s brash confidence in the material powers through, and pins you to your seat for its full two hours. Ultimately, the film’s strength emerges not from its laser-focused sense of purpose, but from a deeper, stranger ambivalence. Presenting, on one level, as a warning against the potentially ruinous power of absolutism, the film’s animating irony — the grain that makes it more than just schematic — is the way in which Mildred’s absolutism, and the absolute commitment with which McDormand plays her, energises us as much as her. The incandescence of her fury is as irresistible as it is destructive.
Words: David Turpin
Illustration: Alé Mercado