Anger, grief, humor converge in ‘Billboards’
Whether his creative expression takes the blood-spattered form of screenplay or stage play, you can always count on writer- director Martin McDonagh to put you through an emotional and existential wringer.
He’ll challenge your steadfast notions about what’s right, what’s wrong. He’ll make you squirmin your seats. And then he’ll make you laugh uncontrollably and uncomfortably.
Expect that and more from McDonagh’s latest stinging triumph, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” a bleak, all- out brilliant pitch-black comedy that taps the raw nerve of America’s revenge-fueled zeitgeist with its unpredictable narrative about how a mom’s quest to avenge her murdered daughter upends a town. It’s one of 2017’s best films.
It’s also one of McDonagh’s finest works. That’s saying a lot since the British-Irish filmmaker is one of our greatest living storytellers, from the exceptional “In Bruges” with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell and the underappreciated “Seven Psychopaths” to the shocking play “The Pillowman,” among others.
As with all his movies, “Three Billboards” is superbly cast. Frances McDormand nestles deep into the hard-shelled soul of Mildred Hayes, a woman seething with fury over the loss of her daughter who was raped, murdered and set on fire. It’s a role few, if any, could play with the unwavering commitment and intensity of McDormand; it adds one more exclamation point to her accomplished career.
Mildred is outraged that there is no viable suspect and decides to put up three billboards that mock small-town police chief William Willoughby ( Woody Harrelson) and his squad. The move needles dense, good-oldboy deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an insecuremess of aman still living with a spiteful mom who finds immense pleasure in goading
her son into acts of violence. Rockwell nails his character, and has the film’s toughest challenge, as Dixon undergoes changes. Oscar voters, pay attention to what Rockwell accomplishes so adroitly here.
The media, of course, catches wind of the sensational billboards, and while that attention puts the focus on Mildred and William, who is harboring a painful secret of his own. Creating more headaches is Mildred’s abusive ex Charlie (John Hawkes), who blusters about on the sidelines. The couple’s teen-age son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, a bit wasted here) acts continually exasperated, and is themost stable of any of the characters.
The setup promotes an Old West- like showdown in which the law and a per- son gone rogue square off. But McDonagh flicks aside the crowd-pleasing obviousness of that. He’s pursuing a more complex narrative terrain and that’s reflected, once again, in his multidimensional characters, all of whom exist in a gray moral territory.
As you probably assumed, there is no hero to root for in “Three Billboards.” Even Mildred. That’s appropriate. McDonagh realizes there are many Mildreds, flawed survivors dealing with the brutality that life’s thrown at them and trying to muffle the aching lonely pain that is eating away at them.
Sound too bleak? For some, perhaps. But in McDonagh’s careful hands, it’s a Cirque du Soleil-like tightrope walk, gracefully balancing the harrowing with the humorous. Only a handful of writers or filmmakers would dare to do what he does with “Three Billboards.”
Both Sam Rockwell, left, as a inept police officer and Frances McDormand as a grieving mother could be looking at Oscar nominations for their performances in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”