In Bruges was the first spot on Martin McDonagh’s map and unbelievably it’s been almost a decade since he stuck a pin on the place for his humorous tale of hitmen on holidays. Now he’s cast his eye on a new destination, specifically near Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri and it’s an undeniable testament to just how far he’s come not just as a director but as a writer who finds a beauty among the bleak.
Reuniting with two of his Seven Psychopaths, Woody Harrelson is the town sheriff who has an issue that’s got his name all over it, courtesy of grief-stricken mother and town local, Mildred, played by the immensely brilliant Frances McDormand. Seven months since her daughter was found raped and murdered, the case has since gone cold with no suspects or any glimpse of justice in sight. Seeing this as a long enough time without answers, she aims her question directly to the head of the local police department by way of three giant billboards, refusing to take them down until justice is served. As a result, Chief (Harrelson) is forced to answer the call; RAPED WHILST DYING. STILL NO LEADS. HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY? Interestingly though, the writing, as much as she pays for it and its crisp black font on a blood-red background, isn’t on the wall, and so begins a deeply woven tale that’s heavy on the woe but generous on the laughs, as well.
As with any of McDonagh’s work, Three Billboards is filled with some questionable characters that aren’t afraid to mince words and spray them with ferocity, leaving you unsure of whether to scorn or snigger at their course of action. But in this band of potentially bitter seeds blooms Frances McDormand’s Mildred, who might be one of his finest creations. Hiding a broken heart behind a layer of vitriol and rage, Mildred has an axe to grind from the beginning and goes on to swing it with immense power and precision. On the rare occasions she doesn’t speak her mind she’s looking at the world with a brutally honest perspective and you can’t help but see the same. She’s dealt with her loss as best she can, but her issue is why nothing has been done since. Why can’t her wound, still so deep and raw, be healed and what will it take to do so? Mildred’s fight for resolution is incredible to see, and McDormand portrays it with the sort of blunt force that is a perfect fit for McDonagh’s character list.
The writer/director dynamo could’ve played this a lot simpler; two people on either side of a horrific incident and both fighting to take the other down. This isn’t the case though. This rage and frustration spewing from Mildred isn’t aimed at Harrelson’s Willoughby, but as she rightfully says, ‘the buck has to stop somewhere’ and the dear Sheriff is willing to take the brunt of it. Willoughby is accepting both Mildred and his failing her, trying his best to pacify the tornado in worn down overalls tearing up his town that he has a genuine respect for. Harrelson plays the part beautifully, as a man simply trying to get by in a life that is already proving difficult and desperate to do it his way. In a tale of so many bitter and ballistic characters, he’s one of the few sane members of the group.
Another target caught in Mildred’s firing line is Deputy Dixon played by the always welcome and effortlessly brilliant, Sam Rockwell. Having all the stability and self-restraint of a falling tree, Dixon isn’t necessarily the villain of the piece and more an insufferable arse. Rockwell’s badge-lacking lawman is a racist momma’s boy with a short fuse and low-level of wit, so you’ll hate him from the off, but just like the passing souls of In Bruges, he’s an ugly character, with a glimmer of the best intentions. Just another masterstroke for McDonagh’s imagination, Mildred might be the key focus but Rockwell’s Dixon is astonishingly the one you’ll route for in the film’s final act. Like so many others, he’s an individual embittered by both life and death, and desperate to make amends in whatever’s in between. It’s this aim that makes McDonagh’s characters so relatable in all their lowest and rarely seen highs, viewed through the same dark lens that was cast over the director’s debut film, it’s clear to see that scope has been polished to perfection, catching a glimpse of what might be the best film of 2018.