Five years ago a brilliant, nutso movie with a stellar cast (Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell, Abbie Cornish) came and went with barely a whimper. Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths—I suppose the title may have been a turnoff for some—was one of the more clever and creative offerings of 2012; I hailed it as “whacked out as it is hilarious and as brutal as it is (oddly) touching.”
Now McDonagh is back with only his third film in nine years (by day he’s one of Ireland’s most acclaimed playwrights), the haunting and darkly hilarious Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, further proving that McDonagh is one of the more ingenious and moving writer/directors working today. Reminiscent of the bleaker half of the Coen Brothers resumé, it is not only immensely entertaining with powerful performances by all involved, it will leave you haunted and more than a little shaken, if not stirred.
Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a divorced single mother who is still grieving the rape and murder of her young daughter Angela seven months earlier. The crime has gone unsolved, and Mildred, frustrated by the police department’s inaction, rents three billboards to express (in big bold black letters) her consternation, particularly with Chief Bill Willoughby (Harrelson). Not only is the Chief irked with the insinuation that he’s not doing his job, the vast majority of the town (including Mildred’s son) is none too pleased with the garish display either.
In many worlds, that would have been the whole story—the billboards and the headaches they cause—but this is McDonagh’s whack-a-doo world, and it doesn’t take long to realize that the dead daughter is little more than a MacGuffin, a plot device that serves little purpose other than to give the characters a shared connection.
Billboards riffs on everything from race to police corruption to the dynamics of a dysfunctional family, and just when you think everything has settled down and you’ve got everything figured out, McDonagh throws another (often grim and disheartening) twist into the mix. Every moment played just for a silly laugh (the new, very young girlfriend of Mildred’s ex doesn’t know the difference between polo and polio) is matched with a heartbreaking, stinging moment; the flashback scene between Mildred and Angela on the day of Angela’s murder is particularly painful.
McDormand, who earned her only Oscar for Fargo twenty years ago (lord, has it really been that long?), turns in an even more layered and soul-rocking performance here. What could have been a largely one-note portrayal of a grumpy, grieving mom becomes, in her hands, the most memorable work by an actress so far this year. She is at once maddening and sympathetic—a rightfully perturbed woman who, during a single one-on-one scene with Harrelson, shows us she can also be the most vulnerable.
The supporting cast, including fellow sure-fire nominee Sam Rockwell as hot-headed Deputy Dixon, Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son, and Peter Dinklage as the local used car salesman, all hit it out of the park, too, elevating Billboards into that rare air occupied by films that are close enough to perfect that it’s pointless to quibble.
It’s not the easiest film to watch—at times dark, violent, and so heartbreaking that it will rip your chest open—but it’s also among the more memorable and powerful things you’ll see this year, a no-frills masterwork that will stick with you for a good long while after.