Martin McDonagh not only writes hit plays but films too – and he has also directed all his movies, giving himself in theory at least, creative control over his vision. “Billboards” is his third film and while nothing can in my view touch the brilliance of the dialogue in his first, “In Bruges”, in other ways this is the best so far.
Like his previous film “Seven Psychopaths”, “Three Billboards” is set in America, in the small Southern town of the title. Angry that there has been no progress in finding the man who raped and murdered her daughter nearly a year earlier, Mildred Hayes (McDormand) rents the billboards of the title, which stand on the road going out of town, displaying on them her demand of police chief Willoughby (Harrelson) why there has there been no progress in the case. Her action causes a bit of a furore in the town, not so much with Willoughby, who rather takes her point, but certainly with his junior office Dixon (Rockwell), who is gun happy, somewhat thick, prone to torturing prisoners, particularly black ones and still lives with his racist mother.
Partly because of MCDormand in the main role, the film has something of the feel of the Coen Brothers work. But if you’ve seen McDonagh’s previous films, you will know that what to expect here is the unexpected. You literally never know what is going to happen next. The characters themselves are full of surprises and depth. Mildred is not your standard movie grieving mother. She’s a very tough cookie, a fighter, but also a complex character with surprising empathy for others. In one beautifully played scene for example one minute she’s giving Willoughby a really hard time, the next you realise these two are not enemies but friends. Even Dixon turns out to have an unexpected side to him.
McDonagh as a storyteller has no fear. He has created a tragic tale, which is obversely full of deliciously mordant humour. It embraces murder, rape, suicide, violence, cancer and racism, as in a gloriously politically incorrect joke which uses the dreaded “N” word. And it will turn on a dime from high comedy to tragedy and back again.
It is also beautifully cast. Superb performances from the three leads and a wealth of good actors in the supporting roles. They include Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s loving wife; John Hawkes as Mildred’s estranged husband, who’s left her for 19 year old Penelope – Samara Weaving making comic gold out of bimboism – and Peter Dinklage, wo is constantly taunted by Dixon for being a “midget” and who has a secret passion for Mildred.