Martin McDonagh is a playwright-turned-filmmaker, and that may be one reason why he can create such sharply etched characters living in a stifling atmosphere of rage, and still manage to pull out from hidden wells of dark humour in his third feature, the multiple Oscar nominated, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
The film, set in a small American town is fuelled by a superb performance by Frances McDormand, as Mildred Hayes, the grieving, angry, foul-mouthed mother, whose daughter Angela was raped and burnt to death. Several months after the horrific incident, when the cops are unable to apprehend the culprit, she rents three billboards and puts up messages taunting Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
Police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a violent, racist man, sees them and is incensed. To further fan the fire, Mildred appears on local television and questions the cops’ inaction.
The script never lets go of Mildred’s point of view, but is unpredictable in the way the characters respond to her open challenge. It’s not as if Willoughby is inept, he just does not have the leads to help the case. He also has cancer and knows he is dying.
The police chief is well-liked in town, and people disapprove of Mildred’s harangue. Her own son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who was also traumatised by his sister’s murder is not happy about his mother’s methods. Her abusive ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes) turns up with his young girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving) to offer his unwanted opinion.
There is as much compassion and wisdom on display as ignorance and cruelty, but no facile answers or easy redemption — which is what makes the film such a powerful and moving watch.
Frances McDormand’s performance projects all of Mildred’s complexity to the right degree, but McDonagh has also surrounded her with a dream supporting cast, given them great scenes, pertinent lines, and let them set the screen ablaze. This film is a must-watch.