Wonderfully well-written and featuring a stunning central performance by Frances McDormand, this film’s unruly, almost deliberately mundane title belies a work of raw emotional and thematic depth that gets under the skin quickly and, in true Martin McDonagh fashion, finds a pitch black humour in very tragic circumstances.
McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a woman grieving the rape and murder of her daughter, filled with rage over the lack of progress made by the local police force. Driving one day along a derelict road, Mildred comes across three derelict billboards, and hatches a plan to humiliate the police force in to action. Utilising the billboards to remind them of their failure to catch the culprit, she angers the sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and unstable police officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who both attempt to convince her to take the billboards down. Stubborn and intent on forcing the force to do something, she refuses, and a conflict begins that is not necessarily as straightforward as it may seem.
Writer-director McDonagh revels in resisting what is easy, and the complexity of his characters shows that. All of them are deeply flawed people whose reactions to events can be irrational, but McDonagh manages to make each character more than their most grotesque features, making them anything but one-dimensional. The script is exceptional in bringing out these flaws and allowing them to be explored through conversations that are often as witty as they are brutal, interspersed with moments of true emotion that only increase the audience’s level of empathy. McDonagh’s subtle direction allows for it to take centre stage and for its character interactions to be the main focus, which is an intelligent choice.
Central to bringing the script to life are the performances, and as already mentioned McDormand proves herself once again as an exceptional actor who captures every aspect of Mildred, making her feel as real as possible and acting as much with her expressions as she does with the dialogue. Each look is imbued with pain, sorrow and also empathy. Mildred often recognises the situation her supposed antagonists are in, and several conversations she has with the sheriff show this, each handled wonderfully by McDormand, who deserves all the accolades she is receiving.
The other exemplary performance of the film comes from Sam Rockwell, whose work as Dixon elevates his character and the script exponentially. A layered and intricate performance that brings the man fully to life. Dixon is a nasty piece of work who is rumoured to have tortured black people in his time in the police and renowned in the town for wanton brutality, Rockwell does a fantastic job of portraying him to be more than a simple villain, to be a human being in his own right. That elevates McDonagh’s film as a whole, and adds to its accomplishments by the time it reaches its end.
All these aspects, together with a sparse, sombre, beautiful soundtrack by Carter Burwell that accentuates all these moments, contribute to a film that at its heart is about revenge, and its consequences. McDonagh, known for the likes of In Bruges and the fact he revels in a cynical view of humanity, here puts forward ideas like “hate begets hate” with sincerity, lacking the mocking tone you might expect. That soft centre makes the callous shell of the film all the more enjoyable, and brings it together as a poignant masterpiece when it comes to examining human nature and how it can shift and change in subtle ways, particularly when the characters are as fully rounded as they are here.
It pulls no punches in that regard, and that’s what makes it great.
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