Forget about your kick-ass super-heroines. Mildred, the middle-aged mother at the center of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, doesn’t have magic, bullet-repelling bracelets or jiu-jitsu training. All she’s got is a spectacularly vulgar mouth, a fearless take-no-prisoners attitude, and a relentless drive to see justice done—whatever the cost to her family, her community, or her own shaky reputation.
As portrayed with steely grit by the superb Frances McDormand, Mildred is a one-woman Justice League out to avenge the murder of her teenage daughter. That she has a few demons of her own to exorcise along the way deepens her character and the story in this third layered and complex morality play from Anglo-Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh.
As in his previous films, the extraordinary In Bruges, along with Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh displays his gift for mixing raucously funny dialogue and irreverent observation of human nature and foibles with an uncompromising (and often surprising) sense of morality. He also likes to keep us guessing about who are the bad guys, who are the good guys, and what—if anything—separates them.
It’s been long months since her daughter was raped and murdered in the rural town of Ebbing, and Mildred (McDormand) is still incensed that no suspects have ever been found and the case has gone cold. When she notices three dilapidated billboards along what was once the main road into town (before the freeway diverted traffic), she pays to have signage put up demanding action from the town police chief, Willoughby (a terrific Woody Harrelson). This has a divisive effect on the townsfolk: everyone sympathizes with Mildred’s loss, but nobody agrees with her confrontational tactic of blaming the hard-working Willoughby.
Neither a folksy visit from Willoughby himself, however, or the discomfort of her own supportive, but embarrassed son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), can persuade Mildred to remove the billboards. Most offended are the chief’s partisans on the police force, especially loose-cannon deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who lives on the outskirts of town with his tough, butch Momma (Sandy Martin). Dixon likes to get drunk and intimidate black folks, “fags” like Red (Caleb Landry Jones) who rents billboard space to Mildred, and the town “midget,” James (Peter Dinklage).
But Mildred is all about confrontation. When the local priest objects to the billboards, she delivers a tart lesson in “culpability,” comparing Catholic priests to gang members who support the organization despite the crimes committed by other members. She provokes her ex (John Hawkes) into drawing a knife on her over the matter of his 19-year-old sweetie, rudely dispatches a couple of teens who egg her car, and turns the drill on her dentist when he tries to complain about her tactics.
Another actress might choose to chomp on the scenery with extra relish and hot sauce, given such extravagant material. But McDormand commands the material, instead, by playing Mildred small and close; her volatility—and her pain—are right there in her acute gaze and pursed mouth, but she rarely even has to raise her voice. The character’s vulnerability is even more closely guarded, but seeps out in telling, effective ways—particularly as her own sense of personal culpability is gradually revealed. And McDormand has a wonderful scene with Harrelson when an interrogation takes a sudden, unexpected turn: they drop their antagonism, and share a moment of genuine empathy and understanding.
Antagonisms abound in Three Billboards, most of which explode in random acts of sympathy or unexpected alliances. Just about everything you think you know about the characters at first undergoes some sort of sea change, which is what makes McDonagh’s movies so provocative and entertaining.
A more conventional filmmaker might also try to frame this story as more of a traditional mystery thriller, or a subversive black comedy—or possibly both. But throw your expectations out the window, because McDonagh isn’t interested in making a typical genre movie. Nothing gets tied up with a neat bow, here. However marginal his characters, or how dire their circumstances, what interests him above all else is the universal quest for redemption—in whatever oddball form it might take.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
*** (out of three)
With Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R. 115 minutes.