Following In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, director Martin McDonagh closes this year’s BFI London Film Festival with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a comic thriller about a mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter.
Film titles can be lyrical, puzzling or purely literal. Three Billboards is the latter. Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a mother whose daughter was raped and murdered in a field near her home. With the investigation dead and nothing being done, Mildred takes it upon herself to rent the eponymous billboards and write her own message to Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), urging action. The department isn’t particularly well-stocked with intellect, with one of the dumbest deputies Dixon (Sam Rockwell) being a man whose stagger gets in the way of his strut. He’s been accused of torturing black prisoners – “torturing people of colour” is his semi-denial/admission – he has a violent temper and a domineering mother.
Willoughby has his own problems. First of all, there are basically no leads with the case and, as every cop knows, if you don’t solve a case early the chances of solving it shrink as time goes on. He’s also dying of cancer – a fact that Mildred knows and callously disregards. To begin with, clear lines of morality are delineated: Mavis versus the racist, incompetent police and the forgetful town. There’s a delicious takedown of the local priest who wishes her to remove the billboards. But this is really a revenge tragedy and, as with its Jacobean forebears, the revenger has to be driven slightly mad, liable to kill a few Poloniuses and Ophelias on the way to the murderer.
McDormand plays Mavis as tough as a knuckle. A woman who has always been thus but the toughness has been baked in the kiln of her grief to an extreme extent. A brief flashback shows that sorrow is mixed with the filth of guilt as well. Her wife-beating ex-husband (a thoroughly unpleasant John Hawkes) seems ready to rub it in, though she gives it back mainly through jibes at his 19-year-old girlfriend. Her dumbness is one of the few lazy moments in the film but she has company and McDonagh writes dumb cleverly.
If there’s one major criticism it’s that McDonagh’s characters and their back-and-forths are more masterful, whereas the story occasionally gapes with incomprehensible lapses of logic. For a story about the reverberations of violence, there are some moments – such as Mavis assaulting children in her son’s school – that are funny but have no consequences; this frankly beggars belief, coming closer to the genre games of Seven Psychopaths. In the end the film’s own indecisiveness becomes the engine moving it forward and the resolution is a pleasing admission of this. The escalating violence of Ebbing has something of Jim Thompson to it, but the wit of the lines gives it an Oscar Wilde feel – “your Oscar Wilde cock jokes” as someone knowingly remarks.
McDormand takes to Mavis with a bravura performance full of deliberate method to its madness. Meanwhile, the rest of the ensemble – including a suavely mustachioed Peter Dinklage playing a local car salesman who has taken a shine to Mildred – get their teeth into their parts and for the most part don’t let go. Harrelson also deserves mention for a humane and strangely moving performance. In the end, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a multi-layered piece with such swathes of great dialogue that it will no doubt reward – if not demand – multiple viewings. It’s also another item of evidence pointing toward a filmmaker getting into his stride.