“What’s the law on what ya can and can’t say on a billboard? I assume it’s ya can’t say nothing defamatory, and ya can’t say, ‘Fuck’ ‘Piss’ or ‘Cunt’. That right?” asks Mildred.
“Well I think I’ll be alright then.”
Francis McDormand spits pure fire right from the opening scene as Mildred Hayes, a vengeful mother still reeling from the unsolved rape and murder of her teenage daughter seven months prior. In an attempt to ruffle feathers and draw public attention to the seeming incompetence of her local law enforcement, Mildred cashes in all of her savings to put a downpayment on three local billboards she paints blood red with bold block text, reminding everyone of the heinous crime still left unsolved.
For those unfamiliar with playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges and the Olivier Award winning play The Pillowman), do not expect Three Billboards to share more than a slight semblance to its classic revenge-drama facade. McDonagh is famous for subverting realism with loud bursts of humor and violence that often undermine the actions of every character involved. McDonagh has always been more interested in showing the moral ambiguity of any strong-minded opinion, rather than making clear-cut statements of his own. And Three Billboards has its fill of strong-minded folk.
It seems fitting that the billboards Mildred chooses for her heated message were practically out of service—their wood panels still carrying partial advertisements for 1950s baby products, the words “life” and “joy” peeking through the worn paint. When her new red coat is applied, it is as if McDonagh and Mildred both seem to share the same message: here amongst these things is where I’ll paint my message loudly.
McDonagh’s cast of spitfire characters goes way beyond Mildred Hayes in her prison-like grey jumpsuit. Lucas Hedges (this year’s breakout star from Lady Bird and last year’s Manchester By The Sea) plays her clear-minded son, who seems to understand, with a steady brillance, the depth of guilt that fuels his mother’s rage. We also have strong appearances from John Hawkes as Mildred’s abusive ex-husband and Peter Dinklage (a McDonagh regular) who might be the only one who passes through McDonagh’s lens unscathed.
Then there is the guilty Sherif Willoughby himself, played with the soft authority of Woody Harrelson, and his doltish mother-loving sidekick Officer Dixon. Although Dixon seems the obvious villain of the bunch, Sam Rockwell perfectly oscillates between complete ignorant bigotry and dull-witted doofusness in a role that confirms, once again, he is at the top of his game. Together, him and McDormand take turns escalating tensions and blurring the lines between right and wrong, guilt and redemption.
A telling scene occurs about midway through the madness. Mildred and Willoughby are taking turns exchanging insults in a heated jailhouse argument when something quickly occurs that makes both characters emotionally pivot—cut abruptly out of their hatred, in a moment that causes the audiences’ breath to catch. In this one manueveur, McDonagh tears through all of the heat and tension he has been building and reveals each character’s core humanity. That despite the social roles they’ve each cast themselves to play, underneath it all—if only for a fleeting moment at the film’s center—there still exists something separate, something kind.
Although McDonagh spends the whole long second half of the film covering the tracks of that one jailhouse scene, it stays with the audience in a way that makes us wonder why we continue to sit and watch the remaining escalating parade of absurdity. Unlike In Bruges, which used its pithy dialogue as an engaging way of pushing plot forward, Three Billboards seems intent on circling in on its own anger, and although we can’t help but assume that was McDonagh’s point, it is consistently hard to watch. If it weren’t for his cast of allstars feeding off the energy of each other, it would be hard to say McDonagh pulled it off.