This post contains significant plot spoilers
It’s something special when a lead character is harsh, rude, patronising, combative… Who does despicable things like firebombing a police station, publicly intimidating a cancer victim and plotting to kill a man as an act of unwarranted surrogate revenge… And yet still commands the viewer’s respect and sympathy.
That’s testament to the richness of Frances McDormand’s Oscar-nominated masterful central performance, and the carefully nuanced script and direction by Martin McDonagh in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s a flawed film, but an exceptional one. McDonagh’s earlier films Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges have a similar tone but not the emotional complexity and empathy.
McDormand playes Mildred Hayes, a tough-as-nails single mother who works a low-paid job in the local gift shop in a small rural town. Almost a year earlier, her teenage daughter had been brutally murdered, the attacker hasn’t been found. Mildred is bitterly angry about this and blames the police. She thinks they’re complacent and so to stir things up she rents the titular billboards within sight of her house, and put up posters intended to provoke a reaction.
The focus of her ire on the posters is Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, who runs the local, small-town, mildly incompetent police station. In Mildred’s view, the buck stops with him. The three billboards polarise the town and provoke strong emotions, resentment and violence.
Incredibly given the subject matter, Three Billboards is a comedy, albeit a very black one. But it’s not crass. The humour is drawn from the characters, their idiosyncrasies and awkwardness, and from a dark irony and wit. The humour underlines the horror and helps us understand.
A good example of this is in an early sequence, when local cop Office Jason Dixon first notices the billboards when driving back into town after dark. Disused for years, on a little-used road that’s long since been replaced by a bypass, he’s astonished to see the posters being put up. We can barely see them in the dark until he points his car headlights at them. He reads the last poster first: “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”. The puzzled conversation with the men putting up the poster is farcical. Reversing his car to catch the next billboard in his headlights, he reads “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”. What does it mean? An advert, one of the men suggests. For what? Maybe for something … obscure? he offers vaguely. We’re still chuckling as he backs up to see the first billboard, and immediately the tone changes. In huge letters: “RAPED WHILE DYING”.
The impact on the audience is all the more shocking because of the humour that preceded it.
The rape and assault is the emotional centre of the film. The film is surprisingly violent, we see a dentist’s drill piercing a thumb, the brutal beating of a police deputy, a man being thrown from a window, another man severely burnt in a building fire. But we never see the rape; I think a less nuanced script would have depicted it and perhaps that would have lessened its impact. Instead, we’re shown its horror in the impact it’s had on Mildred, on her ex-husband, her son and on the whole town. The horror that keeps the film uncomfortable, painful and tense. The incident clings to everyone and everything in the film, like oil.
And Mildred is determined to keep it that way, until she gets justice. But as we see in the film finding the perpetrator is less of a motive for her than is her need to satisfy her grief, loss, anger and depression. She desperately needs a focus for her grief. The rapist, most likely someone passing through town, will probably never be caught. Mildred is struggling to accept this, and she doesn’t seem to care about collateral damage in her quest for some sort of justice.
But deep down she does care. Mildred isn’t all spite and toughness. Her grief and rage are her momentum and she’s competent and capable, but sometimes she seems to realise when she goes too far, sometimes she pauses. For example, there’s a difficult scene when her young son angrily berates her for putting the billboards up, a constant daily reminder of his sister’s fate. When he confronts his mum with withering sarcasm and hurt Mildred looks a little uncomfortable but doesn’t flinch. But when she’s told that he first leaned the details from the billboard, that he hadn’t known that his sister was ‘raped while dying’ as he couldn’t face reading the police report, we see a flash of pained regret on his mother’s face.
There are other such moments, chinks of regret. Her appalled reaction when she sees Officer Dixon stumbling out of the police station that she’s firebombed, writhing in flames with the rescued case file in his blackened burnt hands.
And perhaps most touchingly, we see her shock and tender distress when Willoughby suddenly coughes up blood, his cancer has become so much worse than she’d understood. Here, we see that her tough demeanour is a merely roleplay, and in a way she and Willoughby both have settled into their respective parts in a game. All that falls away when she realises how bad his illness is and rushes to get aid.
McDormand – and the script – express these contradictions, this humanity ever so subtly. Her chiselled face barely betraying her emotions. All the more effective to understand her pain.
There are very few flashbacks, and only one featuring the daughter, where we discover that she and Mildred parted on bad terms, after a furious argument which Mildred never had a chance to put right. Mildred isn’t sentimental, but there’s a central quiet scene where Mildred encounters a deer that might just symbolise her daughter, which gives Mildred an opportunity to express herself unguardedly.
The film is primarily Mildred’s story, but it also becomes the story of Dixon, the policeman we see at the start of the film. Dixon is more of a stereotype or caricature, at least at the beginning. He is lazy, a drunk, a racist and has a history of overreaction and violence, and he is rightly condemned for that, in the script and eventually by his boss when he is sacked. But ironically he turns out to be the best policeman of all, following a lead, showing remarkable intelligence and enduring a brutal beating to gather evidence, persevering in the cause even after he has been sacked. He develops a sense of justice, however warped, and this becomes a sort of crusade for him, a redeeming journey. Somehow Willoughby recognises this potential in him from early on, writing to him that he has the makings of a good cop, a good man really if only he applied himself.
His transformation is slightly problematic, and has provoked accusations that the film is inherently racist. That’s probably unfair. Dixon is certainly a racist: he has a history of beating up blacks and the police seem to have turned a blind eye. Over the course of the film he does go through almost a redemption, but his racism isn’t explicitly addressed during that change and he doesn’t show any specific remorse. The film’s accusers suggest that his lack of remorse tacitly condones his racism, but as that isn’t the main theme of the film, because there’s particular reason for the film to focus on racism, the accusations seem unfair. That said, the script is a bit clumsy in using a ‘racist small-town cop’ stereotype as shorthand to introduce the character, and it’s a theme that doesn’t seem to be developed further.
Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson is the calm, sensitive, realistic and insightful anchor of the town. Although McDormand’s performance is being widely praised and rightly so, Harrelson’s acting is also superbly nuanced. We are introduced to the character as the name on the billboard, so we are set up to pre-judge him to be ineffectual, lazy and perhaps corrupt, particularly through McDormand’s eyes. However, slowly we realist that he is a good, pragmatic and sensitive man, although these characteristics are less immediately obvious because of his laid back understated manner.
Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) has a significant supporting role. In this cruel small-town environment, he initially seems to be a figure of fun due to his height. He is mocked, a comedy character, made to be slightly ridiculous. We laugh at this but we come to realise that his character has a dignity and humanity and Mildred is chastised Mildred for her callousness. The audience is also chastised for our complicity.
Three Billboards is a superb film. It does have flaws – Dixon is underwritten and there are some implausible plot points – but this character-driven black comedy never takes the easy path. It’s exceptionally acted, particularly by Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson, but all the cast are superb. It’s tough, cruel, nuanced and humane. And it’s depiction of grief and anger and the need for justice is compelling.Follow @davefilmblog