Irish playwright turned accomplished filmmaker Martin McDonagh brings his trademark powder keg dark humor to “Three Billboards,” a story about a murdered teenager, her grieving mother, an incompetent police department, and three billboards that cause a stir throughout a small town. It’s also a film that plays with audience perceptions in the most creative and unexpected ways.
Frances McDormand is more than Oscar-worthy as Mildred, a desperate, grief-stricken mother who’s angry at the world and angry at herself after her daughter was raped and murdered seven months ago with nary a suspect in sight. Frustrated with the cold case, she sets out to shame the local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his incompetent department (including the hot-headed racist Dixon Sam Rockwell)) by putting up a series of confrontational billboards.
The story unfolds as McDonagh’s other works do: in a surprising ballet of violence coupled with a slew of profane candidness, and eventually all this hatred, pain, and anger morph into unlikely partnerships and hopeful optimism.
McDonagh (who wrote and directed the film) taps into the same vein as his other screenplays (“In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths”), bringing a biting wit, politically incorrect humor, and a somber tone to the story. He has a measured yet effortless rhythm to his writing style that’s punctuated with a poetic eloquence and perceptive wisdom that is a pure joy to read and listen to. The depths of McDonagh’s writing take the characters to a greatly sophisticated level, which only adds to the strength of the performances from his ensemble cast.
There’s nary a misstep here from even the smallest supporting roles, including Caleb Landry Jones as a local ad man, Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son, Peter Dinklage as a potential suitor, and John Hawkes as her abusive ex-husband (the only weak spot is Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife). Sam Rockwell further cements himself as independent film’s national treasure and if anything, the film serves as a reminder of why McDormand should be getting more big screen roles. It’s one of my favorite female lead performances of the year, one that’s simmering with rage and frustration that manifests as an uncontrollable fury (and eventually destructive violence) from a grieving parent desperately searching for the justice that she can’t find. McDormand balances tenderness with stubbornness and delivers stand-up-and-cheer biting monologues (including her epic takedown of a judgmental priest) with a deft precision that feels so natural you will swear she’s riffing them off the top of her head.
The screenplay makes a couple of missteps and can come across as a little too sarcastic and even cartoonish at times, but overall the writing is so strong and the acting is so on point that the message becomes crystal clear. This isn’t a story about solving a crime but instead gives a little slice of Americana with a sober riff on the age old question of what makes a man a good man? It’s a morality tale (of sorts) about the emptiness of revenge. It’ll surprise you with its unanticipated twists, it’ll remind you to question what you’re told, and it’ll flip your perceptions of who truly is the enemy.