RAPED WHILE DYING. AND STILL NO ARRESTS? HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
It’s with these three sentences that fired-up mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) wages war against the Police Force of Ebbing, Missouri – Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), among others – for failing to catch the killer of her daughter.
And it’s with this story that director/writer Martin McDonagh captures all of the simmering anger and bleeding emotion of our times, fearlessly confronting such issues as racism, guilt and justice with directorial grit and a screenplay packed with garrulous ingenuity.
It’s a testament to McDonagh’s talent that he is able to coax so much effortless wit and humour out of a story that is inherently tragic, considering the themes referenced above. But he achieves this with grace, never betraying the moral core of his project. Mildred is not simply a brooding sentinel on the war path: she’s a mother who simply desires finality to her daughter’s case. Her methods of attaining this are deliberately extreme, for the purpose of representing the dangerous lengths to which anger can drive us. But all of this is treated with a delicate hand of hilarity that establishes a responsive connection with Mildred’s quest, as we laugh along to the absurdity of society’s shortcomings. It may sound heavy-handed, but McDonagh refuses to leave us feeling pessimistic: this is not a cynical picture, but a hopeful journey with a dark drive.
However, McDonagh’s greatest achievement might be his pitch-perfect casting. Irrespective of the talent available in Hollywood, no actress could play a character such as Mildred with the concrete tenacity and sentimental sincerity that Frances McDormand brings to play. An intimidating force of parental nature, McDormand spits out McDonagh’s dialogue with fist-pumping virulence. Complex, confident and timeless, she’s a female character for the ages, never standing down to authority, yet always in touch with a humanist understanding of right and wrong. If that Academy Award doesn’t have her name on it already, I’ll happily offer my services to carve it on for her.
Nonetheless, McDormand isn’t the only highlight of the cast, supplemented as she is by a roster of excellent supporting performances, most noticeably Rockwell and Harrelson. As racist, reckless cop Dixon, Rockwell, topping the list of underappreciated actors, produces more stellar work here, moulding a memorable character out of McDonagh’s dialogue, whose narrative arc is one of the film’s highpoints. Additionally, Harrelson offers suitably reserved reinforcement in the form of Willoughby, whose stern mannerisms and indefatigable spirit promote a police chief worthy of his position, in spite of his personal demons.
It must be admitted that not everything in McDonagh’s vision works as fluidly or as commendably as the performances mentioned above. Firstly, the script begins to reveal a number of lapses in narrative as the film progresses. One example is a side-plot involving Mildred’s abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) that feels a little jarring and inconsistent, only presented to us as a means of enflaming Mildred’s already blazing passion. Secondly, some of the performances don’t hold up as well as the main three already mentioned: Abbie Cornish, in particular, feels at odds with the material as Willoughby’s wife Anne, sporting a rather indefinable accent that confuses her register and delivery in the process.
If McDonagh had streamlined his film, focused primarily on Mildred, Dixon and Willoughby, Three Billboards would work perfectly. Mildred’s narrative has weight, vitality and precision, consistently engaging right up to the film’s final moments. Her interactions with Dixon and Willoughby are brilliantly balanced, both humorous and dramatic, fleshing out the intricacies of each character. It’s just a shame that McDonagh drags our attention away at numerous points to focus on the less than likeable ex-husband or underplayed wife of Willoughby.
Nevertheless, these gripes cannot cripple an otherwise excellent experience. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri couldn’t be more timely, as a film that focuses on a woman fighting against a male-dominated authority, in order to obtain justice. McDonagh tackles this difficult subject matter with conviction, providing a script and story that welcome discussion. It’s this kind of thoughtful filmmaking that we need now more than ever. It just helps to have such a phenomenal performance at the figurehead. God bless the world for giving us Frances McDormand.