Dir. Martin McDonagh
Starring: Francis McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, John Hawke, and Peter Dinklage
Three Billboards is the third feature film from writer and director Martin McDonagh. If you’ve seen his other two films, Seven Psychopaths, and In Bruges, then you might know what to expect. He’s a director known for subtle genre subversion, and darkly black comedy. Three Billboards continues this trend with a great deal of confidence, and you get the feeling that McDonagh has really fine tuned his style. Creating a film that works on many different levels, and doing so much more than its black comedy tag would suggest.
It’s the story of Mildred Hayes, played superbly by Francis McDormand, whose daughter was brutally murdered. When the police fail to catch the killer, she pays to put up three billboards which pointedly ask the police why they haven’t found him yet. This question being directed at Chief Willoughby, here played by Woody Harrelson. This starts a “war” between the police and those in the town who support them, and Mildred and those in the town who are against the police. Willoughby will have to do his best to keep those on his side in check, especially loose canon Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, whilst Mildred will have to navigate a town in which her actions have enraged a lot of people.
The film succeeds on so many levels. It’s a great subversion of the western revenge genre. Here, there is no one to aim the revenge against, as the police who would usually saddle up and go off to find the killer don’t know who they are after. This creates a perceived lack of agency from Mildred, which turns the police into the villains. It’s shot like a western, and the score brilliantly invokes this as well. It’s also a brilliant, character driven story. There’s not one character that does something that doesn’t make sense. Their actions, and arcs all seem logical. The actors completely sell this with some phenomenal performances. Especially Francis McDormand and Sam Rockwell. McDormand is the emotional anchor. Being both heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure. She’s doing something which she feels she has to do, but you get the feeling that she’s not sure if it’s the right thing to do. Rockwell gets a character which could have been seen as completely unlikeable or completely goofy, but their is a subtlety to his performance which allows his character to develop, and gives the audience the opportunity to root for his reformation.
This review so far has focused on how much of an emotionally complex movie this is, focusing on some pretty heavy subject matter. This belies how funny the movie is. It’s dark without ever feeling dour, as it’s just so entertaining. McDonagh achieves all this through mastery of tone. The tone of this movie is spot on. The darkest moments being undercut by the funniest moments. An example of this is just after the darkest, saddest, and most tragic scene, which cuts to a completely oblivious Rockwell dancing to Abba. It never feels forced either, all the laughs stemming from the characters and how they deal with the awful situations they find themselves in. This mastery of tone also extends to how well the characters are written. McDormand the exact right mix of tough and vulnerable. Rockwell the exact right mix of psychopathic and stupid. Their respective arcs feeling completely earned.
The film is also extremely timely. McDonagh aims his cutting dialogue at everyone. No one escapes unscathed. Whether it’s the Catholic Church, or Police brutality. At one point Harrelson explains that you can’t get rid of all the racist cops because you’d only be left with three, who would be homophobic. It’s a slice of America under Trump. The way the media can be used to direct peoples anger and hate through mere suggestion. Facts aren’t important. The central message and theme of the film also ties into this. It’s about hate, and how meeting those who hate with hate just creates more hate. It’s a film whose worst character is given the room to change and reform because of a guiding hand. It’s so well written that the audience are allowed to feel for the most unlikeable character. Ultimately, it’s a film about forgiveness.
Three Billboards is such a hugely enjoyable movie. You will cry. You will laugh. You will think, and you will leave the theatre completely satisfied, but with thoughts and themes to ruminate on for days. It’s well written, well directed, and acted fantastically by a great ensemble cast. It’s sure to be a real contender during this awards season. See it now.