Irish playwright Martin McDonagh made his directorial debut with “In Bruges” (2008). That movie told the story of two affable hit men hiding out in Bruges after a killing gone wrong. Four years later, he followed it up with “Seven Psychopaths” (2012) about a screenwriter roped into an odyssey of malice and idiocy surrounding a stolen dog and an angry mob boss. These films are characterized by gorgeously wrought dialogue interspersed with scenes of often stunning violence filled out by leads who have none of the noble or restrained characteristics of your average protagonist. They are foul-mouthed, foul-tempered and violent, a step beyond simple anti-hero. McDonagh revels in human imperfection and does not shy from the complexity of emotion. “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths” both did wonderful jobs of conveying this, but in his newest film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), he seems to perfect it.
The film tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who rents out the eponymous billboards to put pressure on the local police department led by town celebrity Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Mildred thinks they have failed to aptly investigate her daughter Angela’s (Kathryn Newton) violent rape and murder because nearly a year after the event no arrests have been made. The billboards, in bright red and black, read “Raped while dying. / And still no arrests? / How come, Chief Willoughby?” Her billboards have the desired effect, bringing Willoughby and his second-in-command Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) to attention. The billboards divide the small town of Ebbing, Missouri, many feeling that it is unfair towards Willoughby, who is dying of cancer. Life in Ebbing seems to center around one main street, where the advertising agency that owns the billboards sits across from the police department. Apart from the gift shop where Mildred works, the billboards, and her home, we see her nowhere else. But the town intrudes to offer their opinions. Father Montgomery (Nick Searcy), the town priest, comes to Mildred, telling her: “Everyone’s on your side about Angela. No one’s on your side about these billboards.” However, he is wrong about that. The film unfolds just as Dixon characterizes it, as a “war” between Mildred, who refuses to allow her daughter’s death to fade away, and those who would rather it be stricken from the public eye.
In this sense, “Three Billboards” is at its core a brilliant character study that centers on Mildred. She is motivated by a pure fury that is equaled only by her grief, and we empathize in a profound way with this image of a mother who wants nothing more than justice for her daughter. Yet, Mildred has the general disposition of sandpaper, grating and irritating almost everyone and everything she comes into contact with, employing a rather majestic lack of restraint. She is the character we needed in 2017: a woman who refuses to take shit from anyone and who will follow her gut through any debris that may fall in her way. McDonagh writes for Mildred some of the most affecting lines he ever has, and she is brought to life by Frances McDormand.
McDormand is, in my eyes at least, the single most talented actress alive today. Looking at her filmography, from “Fargo” (1996) to “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), she has never turned in a bad performance, whether she sits at the center of the plot or as a supporting figure. She disappears into her roles, mastering different accents and physical ticks to accentuate each character. Here, decked out in a red bandana and a blue jumpsuit for most of the film, she seems a direct dismissal of the classic ‘leading lady.’ Even at a dinner date later in the film she stays in this outfit, presenting a clear message to the town and the viewer: this woman cares little for what you may think of her, only concerned with delivering the justice her daughter deserves. When Father Montgomery delivers his criticism in her kitchen, she leans in the doorway and delivers what may be the finest speech McDonagh has ever written about the culpability of Catholic priests, and how little right he has to criticize her. It is deft, measured, and somehow, hilarious. McDormand finds the core of McDonagh’s writing, giving the performance of her career.
All of this is filmed with an elegance and beauty that gives the film the sheen I would imagine William Faulkner’s novels would look like if brought to life. The mountains that rise above the billboards convey a sense of scope and sadness with the mist rolling from their peaks, a range of crying giants with their gazes fixed on Mildred’s grief. McDonagh alternates between breathtaking long shots of the town and landscape and close ups of the people that populate them. We see them and the town as they see each other, up in their faces with little ability to stretch out and look away. This makes the interspersal of medium shots that much more of a punctuation. Mildred awaiting Willoughby’s interrogation at the police station stands out to me as one of the most beautiful shots in the film: light filters through the drawn shades while she sits behind a beige desk, arms crossed, defiance radiating from her every pore. McDonagh picks his images carefully, staging two pivotal conversations about Angela’s death with Mildred sitting beside Willoughby first, and Dixon second, on a set of swings. McDonagh focuses our attention on the innocence suggested by the swings, an instrument of childhood, and then contrasts it with the gut-wrenching description of the crimes committed and what has been done to investigate them.
‘Stagey’ or ‘theatrical’ have often been treated as dirty words when it comes to movies. No director wants their movie to seem like it’s just a play that has been photographed, but I think the blanket statement misses the intricacy of theatrics. McDonagh is primarily a playwright, and I believe it is this sensibility that makes his movies so well constructed. There is not a wasted word in his script, and within the composition of each scene his motifs and focus bring our attention right where he wants it. You have such limited visual ability on stage that you must be quite precise about what you fill the space with. It is this theatrical intuition that makes Three Billboards so effective; each image, word, and detail seems to have been considered with such attention that they fit together in nearly flawless fashion. It makes me wish that McDonagh would increase his output, giving us more than one movie every four or five years. But, then again, if each of them is as good as this, it’s well worth the wait.