A Pitch-Black, Deeply Divisive Tragicomedy
For his third feature Irish writer/director, Martin McDonagh has served up a pitch-black tragicomedy that explores the impact one woman’s grief and anger can have on a small American town. His latest film has divided opinion with critics and viewers some lauding it as a modern cinematic classic, whilst others are completely bemused at the critical acclaim that’s been heaped upon it.
Whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to proclaim Three Billboards as a modern classic, I do think it’s a hugely impressive feature boasting three fantastic central performances from Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. More importantly, it’s a welcome return to form for McDonagh, whose previous feature (Seven Psychopaths) just really didn’t do anything for me.
Its McDormand’s performance, in particular, that really makes the film work! Her character Mildred Hayes is a mother grieving the death of her daughter, who was brutally raped and murdered seven months prior to the events of the film. Her grief has now turned to anger and she decides to place adverts on three billboards that question the competency of the police department’s handling of the investigation. These aforementioned billboards become not only a shrine to her daughter’s memory but also a physical manifestation of her rage against a town that has seemingly forgotten her daughter.
A Force of Nature Filled with Rage and Anger
Mildred is a force of nature, a larger than life character ready to go to war against a town that has rallied behind their beloved police-chief Willoughby in the furore her billboards created. Much like how the ring of power corrupted Bilbo and Frodo in Lord of the Rings (bear with me), Mildred herself has become twisted by her own rage. She’s filled anger and grief, but she’s also deeply ashamed of her parting words to her daughter on the day she was murdered
This ‘take no shit attitude’ she seems to exude in abundance feels like more like a persona Mildred has created as her coping mechanism: not only for her daughter’s death but also for the years of abuse she endured at the hands of her ex-husband, who just so happened to be a cop. Every now and again, whether its moments alone at her billboards or even in the middle of a heated exchange between Woody Harrelson’s character, her guard seems to drop and we see faint glimpses of the vulnerable woman lurking beneath her shield of dry wit and sarcasm.
With Harrelson and Rockwell McDormand is ably supported by two actors on the top of their game in their respective roles. Harrelson’s police chief Willoughby is a man facing down his own mortality as he battles pancreatic cancer. He’s a good man at heart, sympathetic towards Mildred situation, but still deeply hurt by the personal nature of her attacks. As the drama unfolds, taking some unexpected turns along the way, his character becomes a voice of reason and calm for those around him who seem hell-bent on succumbing to their own rage and anger.
A Welcome Return to Form
As I mentioned earlier I wasn’t a big fan of McDonagh’s previous feature Seven Psychopaths, it just didn’t do anything for me, it was a great disappointment after the wonderful In Bruges. It was just too bloated and self-indulgent, but Three Billboards feels like a much-needed return to form for the writer: yes the expletive-filled dialogue is still there by the bucket loads, as too his bizarre obsession with midgets, whilst they mightn’t shock me like they once did, he still remains a master at making us laugh, even when we know we shouldn’t.
As a writer, he loves to get under his character’s skins, explore the chinks in their armor and examine their moral compasses. He’s not merely interested in whether they are good or bad, but more importantly the grey area that lurks in between. His creations are flawed and they don’t come much more flawed than Sam Rockwell’s character Dixon.
He’s a police officer with a short temper and racist tendencies, but he’s still a good guy at heart. He’s a goof and a bit of a mamma’s boy, yet it’s his character arc that is probably one of the most surprising aspects of the film.
A Dark, Ambiguous Finale
Much like Mildred, Dixon is a character seeking some sort of redemption from his own shameful past, by the time the film reaches its finale McDonagh threatens to give his characters what they’ve been craving: but much like the Coens’ pseudo-western No Country for Old Men, just when we least expect it McDonagh pulls the rug out from underneath us and refuses to serve up the satisfying resolution, which he so heavily hinted was coming.
Instead, McDonagh sends his creations potentially down a much darker path, one that’s deliberately ambiguous and unsatisfying. It’ll surely divide opinion as viewers are left to make up their own minds as to what his characters will ultimately do: some might be able to empathize with their decision, whilst others will be completely unable to sympathize with what they’ve set out to do.
It’s taken me two viewings to finally make my mind up on Three Billboards, but after a much-needed second watch I’ve decided it’s a fantastic feature, boasting three fantastic performances from its central cast. Yes it’s dark and the ending is deliberately ambiguous and unsatisfying, but McDonagh has delivered a pitch black tragicomedy with some fleshed out, rounded characters.