For fans of what Ricky Gervais termed "number movies" (Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, Ocean's 11, Se7en, etc.), Martin McDonagh's latest offering will no doubt be a welcome addition to the roster. The Irish playwright turned screenwriter and director has produced another wonderfully quirky and darkly comic tragedy that revolves around the futility of anger and grief, retribution and revenge.
The movie opens on a low boil amid a lush landscape smudged with soft hues and subdued contours. Mildred Hayes (a divorced single mother, played with searing ferocity by Frances McDormand) is behind the wheel of her station wagon staring with furrowed intensity at three derelict billboards and chewing on a fingernail with such savagery she seems on the verge of ripping it off completely. The billboards are not entirely blank (the faded image of a baby smiles down from one, the word 'life' pops off another), but they provide the opening prologue to Mildred’s opus. Printing black text against a blood red background, she uses them to publicize her crusade, which permits McDonagh (who has a penchant for self-aware gestures) to lay out his film's fundamental premises: its setting, characters, central problem, plot, and possible villain.
The billboards are both a gimmick for McDonagh and a gambit for Mildred, a graphic means to smear a disturbing sense of unease across an apparently pacific and idyllic landscape. This is the same sort of topographical approach initially explored by David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet) and subsequently adopted by numerous TV dramas from Top of the Lake and Broadchurch. The ensuing narrative arc delineates the ripples of outrage, confusion, and ridiculous buffoonery that soon envelop Ebbing, revealing the same seamy prejudices and simmering resentments that underpin any isolated one-horse town in which everyone knows everyone else's business.
Grief and anger have walled Mildred in with machicolations. Isolating and seemingly impenetrable, they are etched permanently into her adamantine gaze. The billboards weaponise her inner emotions by targeting the law and assorted men (a threatening stranger, a vigilante dentist, and an abusive, alcoholic ex-husband) who collectively suggest another wall that has closed in on Mildred. She is an unapproachable person to be around - and understandably so, since it has only been seven months since her teenage daughter Angela was found raped and incinerated near their home. Fixated on finding the perpetrator of the crime, Mildred cruises around in her wood-paneled station wagon, sporting a bandana and blue union work suit which she rarely removes, staring fixedly ahead. She has no patience for the soothing pleasantries of the local priest, who drops by her house for a cup of tea and is served a profane rant about pedophilia in the Catholic clergy. She even scoffs at her son's repeated pleas to stop rubbing the horrible details of Angela’s murder into the face of everyone she meets.
Instead, Mildred decides to increase the volume. She rents out the billboards and plasters them with custom-made messages directed at the local police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). They express with admirable economy both the savage nature of the crime and Mildred’s fury at the police, who have conspicuously failed to make any arrests. Chief Willoughby assures her that his department is doing all it can, but that is cold comfort when the cop assigned to the case is a blustering numbskull like Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Accused at one point of being in the “nigger-torturing business,” he replies, “It’s the ‘person-of-color’-torturing business.” Not much seems to have changed in the cinematic Deep South since In The Heat of the Night showed Sidney Poitier sorting out Rod Steiger fifty years earlier.
The film is studied with ironic fictional and filmic references. When we first meet advertising manager Welby in his rundown office he is reading a short story collection by Flannery O'Connor entitled A Good Man Is Hard to Find. The movie with Donald Sutherland's "good hair" and his "dead girl" that Dixon's mother is watching is Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, which McDonagh's In Bruges also alluded to repeatedly. McDormand's character clearly parallels Sutherland's - both are driven by the guilt and grief of losing their daughter. And the bandana Mildred wears is a subtle homage to Deer Hunter, of which McDonagh is an avid fan. During the filming of Seven Psychopaths, he often discussed the movie with Christopher Walken. Harrelson himself has described as "Super Troopers meets Seven Psychopaths."
In some ways, Three Billboards constitutes a kind of cinematic game in which McDonagh delights in revealing his sleight of hand. His characters’ ordeals, demands, sacrifices, and redemptions connect together as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle, into which he retrofits their traits and experiences. McDonagh has a tendency to be more interested in his narrative contraptions and contrivances than his characters, who exist solely to play their part in the plot and run the risk of becoming robotic silhouettes spouting gaudily profane wisdom dispensed two hundred and eighty characters at a time. His uniformly excellent cast have to sweat every line, weigh every gesture, and pour every ounce of their skill into humanizing the flimsy simulacra that are written for them. Mildred’s controlled fury, more than any other factor, keeps the film unified and dramatically engaging as her quest for retribution quickly transforms into a desire for revenge and her anger metastasizes into a righteous rage that fixates on Willoughby as the principal agent of justice. She renders herself a social outcast and drags others into the vortex of her cold fury by distrusting the legal process, denying the possibility of chance and coincidence, and considering social systems mechanistically.
McDonagh has written and directed two other feature films - the hilarious In Bruges, and the more uneven, but equally numeric Seven Psychopaths - both of which also combined scabrous humor and bursts of violence with warm and witty character comedy. Three Billboards maintains a better balance of tone, as well as possessing two qualities those films lacked - an inhabited sense of place and a vividly drawn female protagonist. Despite their memorable settings (a stunningly beautiful medieval Belgian tourist town and the Southern California desert), McDonagh's earlier movies retained a discursive theatrical quality, the locations serving mainly as a scenic backdrop for tense encounters among chatty, neurotic men.
Three Billboards is also much more substantial than his previous films. Something of a subgenre unto himself, McDonagh is an aficionado of pain whose tools include absurd violence, cruel laughter, and a plethora of sucker punches. He skated through Seven Psychopaths, a barely-there comedy that pivoted a bunny, stolen dogs, guys with guns, good and bad jokes around a creatively stalled screenwriter, but what little was said was delivered by some very fine performers clearly grooving on all his larrikin nonsense. Like his earlier efforts, Three Billboards has loads of gab, plenty of guns, and the ugly spectacle of men (mainly) behaving badly. Its tone also shifts restlessly between comedy and tragedy, splattering buckets of blood along the way. This time, though, McDonagh has peopled his movie with real characters rather than simple contrivances, developed a plot instead of self-reflexive ideas about storytelling, and constructed a diffuse, overarching metaphor. He has also managed to ground all these elements within a tragic découpage that allows each of the performers to play to their range.
Unlike the geographically displaced heroes of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Mildred is an integral feature of this broader social landscape. For better or for worse, she belongs in Ebbing, even if most of its inhabitants regard her as certifiably insane. McDonagh also deftly establishes a host of secondary characters who are more than just plot-advancers: the manager of the office that rents out the billboards (Caleb Landry Jones); a regular at the town bar with a longtime crush on Mildred (Peter Dinklage); and thuggish Dixon’s even meaner mother (Sandy Martin). Ebbing feels like a town we already know our way around, from the grubby confines of the police station to that lonely stretch of farm road with its three accusatory billboards.
The movie was in fact filmed in the small North Carolina mountain town of Sylva. Several locations used for shooting were businesses that were repurposed or given new facades. The Police Department building was a consignment furniture store that was redressed, the special effects scenes involving pyrotechnics were filmed, then the building was remodeled to its previous state and returned to the business owners. Local residents of Jackson County were cast for background roles and students from the Stage and Screen department of nearby Western Carolina University were cast as shooting stand-ins for the main actors. The hospital and doctor's office scenes were filmed at Haywood Regional Medical Center in Clyde, while the restaurant scene was filmed at J Arthur's restaurant in Maggie Valley.
Not only is the setting itself is an authentic vision of Small Town America, but the cast is also consistently brilliant. The highly versatile Sam Rockwell almost manages to upstage McDormand in his heavily padded costume and burn scars. He has found a role that makes full use of his goofy charisma, while harnessing it to something more substantial, and it may be the one that finally gets him noticed. Harrelson puts in a brief performance, equal parts tough and tender, as good as anything he has done before. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s abusive ex-husband, who has left her for a 19-year-old, and he too is allowed to be more than the sum of his sins. Superb supporting work is also done by Sandy Martin, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Zeljko Ivanek, and the diminutive Dinklage remains stalwart as ever.
Whenever McDonagh allows it, the anguish of the supporting characters haunts Three Billboards. He likes to play comedy against violence and to wring laughs out of the unspeakable. This juxtaposition produces the kind of absurdity that catches in our throat, demanding that we question what exactly we find so funny. Sometimes his jokes can be glib - tiny, bloodless pricks that are less about challenging the viewer's expectations than obscuring the material’s overriding theatricality. But everything fits together seamlessly in Three Billboards - even when chaos descends - mainly because the entire cast contributes sufficient textural detail that the humour rarely feels contrived.
In McDormand's complete commitment to her unlikable and somewhat unhinged character, Mildred comes across as neither chatty nor neurotic. She is completely convinced of the rightness of her cause and more likely to communicate her needs with a swift kick in the crotch rather than reasoned dialogue. There are moments when she commits acts that push at the limits of our sympathy, but McDormand fearlessly challenges us to sympathize with her character despite her errors of judgement. Although the role of Mildred was specifically written for her, she was initially hesitant to accept and only convinced by her husband, Joel Coen - "Because at the time he gave it to me I was 58 ... I was concerned that women from this socioeconomic strata did not wait until 38 to have their first child. So we went back and forth and we debated that quite for a while, and then finally my husband said, 'Just shut up and do it'."
As the movie’s only flashback implies, Mildred was not always nice to her daughter and her idea of how to lift her grieving son’s spirits is to flick a spoonful of soggy cereal at his head, then mock his annoyance. But being 'nice' and 'good' are two different things. Although Mildred makes many reprehensible choices, McDormand conveys the fundamental decency of this 'difficult' woman, a tragic heroine struggling to find even the tiniest scrap of meaning in a terribly unfair world. She tears the movie open by revealing exactly what a broken heart looks like during an uneasily intimate encounter with the dying police chief. Until then, Mildred has seemed impervious to his pain, so wrapped up in her own that she has become inured to anyone else’s. When she realizes just how sick Willoughby really is, she looks at him with astonishment as though for the first time. She is astonished as much by his admission as her own emotional reaction, and so are we.
An actor of great unforced naturalism, McDormand never seems concerned about losing our sympathy - which can be both shocking and thrilling, particularly given that female performers are so often required simply to pander or seduce. In this movie, she makes her pain so palpably all-encompassing that we see it in her character’s every glance and gesture. It squares Mildred’s jaw, hardens her mouth, and turns her face to stone, as if she were further fortifying her defenses. She often appears ugly and irredeemable as a consequence, but this only makes her more authentically human.
As Buster Keaton realized at the birth of cinema, that same stone face can also be a great comic asset. But McDonagh’s efforts at sour humour grow progressively less successful as he plays with shifting tones and ideas, including Rockwell's racist, alcoholic, homosexual, and self-hating cop, whose redemption suggests the director may retain some hope for humanity after all. The paradox lies deep in his screenplay's central conceit - that vengeance itself can produce a level of pain which never subsides. It feeds on the anger and grief that Mildred nurtures and is so brutally self-consuming that its violence can eventually become indistinguishable from its cause. Typically, McDonagh allows his least intelligent character (the confused, but utterly charming teenage girlfriend of Mildred's ex) to encapsulate the movie's message, which she has read not in a book about polo, but on a bookmark - or was it polio?