Director: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
In a small fictional town in Missouri, a grieving, foul-mouthed mother makes use of three billboards in a bid to remind the local police force that the rapist/murderer of her teenage daughter is still out there, and she wants answers. Through these billboards she sets in motion a rapid succession of events, some of which may not have happened had she been arguably more level-headed. What starts off as a clear story about heroes and villains becomes less and less so: black and white turns to grey very swiftly. So if there are no clear cut winners and losers, what is writer-director Martin McDonagh’s latest offering trying to tell us?
For a story that is based on the sexual assault and murder of a young woman, Three Billboards has a very odd yet remarkably suitable tragicomedy narrative woven into it from the off. From mother Mildred Hayes’ (McDormand) potty-mouthed, punctuation-less dialogue to the comic timing of Sheriff Willoughby’s (Harrelson) reactions and the often dim-wittedness of Officer Dixon (Rockwell), this isn’t your average dark and brooding drama. To have your audience genuinely laughing one second and sincerely shocked the next, and literally in that amount of time, is not an easy thing to pull off, but between McDonagh’s script and the performances of his absolutely stellar cast, it is more than pulled off: it is perfectly mastered. Personally I have never been so drawn into a story as to emote such genuine reactions in such quick succession. And not one bit of humour feels disingenuous or forced. Sometimes, even in the midst of grief or stress or anger, we do something that comes across as humourous because of the absurdity of it, and it’s this that sets the movie apart from anything with a similar story. For instance, a scene in which a priest, Father Montgomery (Nick Searcy), visits the Hayes household is quickly turned into a bit of a farce on his part when Mildred bombards him with a swear-filled rant on the hypocrisy of his asking her to take down her offensive billboards and his being a part of the priesthood (or, as she metaphorically describes it, the “gang”) at a time when the abuse of young boys by priests is well-known. It’s in this that McDonagh’s British roots shine through – it is rather a British nuance to find this sort of thing to be both shocking and hilarious simultaneously, a combination McDonagh is clearly happy to marry together many times throughout Three Billboards.
Combining humour and shock creates a grey area for the audience of not quite knowing how to feel, and McDonagh makes this a theme throughout Three Billboards. It is reflective of what Mildred is going through: should she grieve and move on? Should she be fighting for answers, no matter how unlikely to get them she may be? Mildred may seem like the devoted mother, not resting until Chief Willoughby provides her some closure, but just like any mother and human being, she is flawed. Her actions are embarrassing to her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), she toes the line of the law many times and doesn’t seem too bothered about others getting caught up in her dangerous actions. However we see, time and again, that maternal instinct come out in Mildred, along with a sense that she would lay down her life for someone she truly cared about, whether a blood relative or not, and she senses it in those who would perhaps do the same for her. Portrayed magnificently by McDormand and written so well by McDonagh we understand Mildred without her having to do or say much at times. McDormand’s ability to say so much with no more than a hand gesture speaks volumes of her talent. It is little wonder that, at the time of writing, McDormand has won the Golden Globe for Best Actress, McDonagh for Best Screenplay and the film for Best Motion Picture – Drama. Not to mention the Oscar buzz surrounding the whole production.
Furthering the ‘grey area’ theme are the characters of Chief William “Bill” Willoughby and his dim-witted, racist and downright rude second Officer Jason Dixon, again played to high standards by Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, respectively. Initially we are led to believe that something, perhaps corruption, inactivity or pure laziness, has caused the police force of Ebbing to put the murder case of Mildred’s daughter on the back burner. Whatever the reason, we assume that if Mildred is going to such lengths to put the case back in the forefront of their minds, something must be incredibly awry within the law enforcement. However that is not necessarily the case: Willoughby is, as we very quickly come to know, a very caring and diligent family man, someone who is dealing with his own personal issues whilst trying to maintain a trustworthy and righteous police force, something that is not easy to do as he mentors the immature and often dangerous Dixon. Rockwell’s character is perhaps the biggest grey area of them all. Dixon is a racist, juvenile, homophobic and inexperienced cop that not only needs to change, but wants to. It’s easy to feel that he is misunderstood, a victim of his circumstances, growing up in a town with little tolerance for anyone different. Dixon shows evidence of his penitence from the off but he struggles to maintain it. As is proven by his Golden Globe win for Best Supporting Actor, Rockwell certainly puts in an emotional and, at times, endearing performance – another quintessential example of having the audience not quite sure how they are supposed to feel. Ultimately what these actors have managed to do is make their characters feel real. Not one performance feels like a performance.
To go in to this movie expecting a story that has its hero (Mildred) and its villains (the police and the murderer), and hardships leading to resolutions that will favour one side, as the standard model of a story has us expect, would be understandable. But this film is grey. The world is grey. Humans are grey. This in itself may sound simple but is far from it. There is no such thing as a happy ending, as that would denote that everyone escapes unscathed from a story, which again is far from reality. Three Billboards is a worldly lesson in the human condition, whether it means to be or not – what is moral and what isn’t, what our emotions make us do or not do, even questioning mortality at times and the extent of our control over it. It is absolutely one of those films that deserves a second viewing in order to take in more of the motifs that, although filled thickly with them, are woven in so simply you may not initially realise they are there. A worthy contender for the Best Picture Academy Award.