Francis McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, the mother of a murdered girl, who wants justice. Deciding that the local police aren’t doing nearly enough to find her daughter’s killer, she rents three billboards along a road no one uses anymore to send a message of accusation to the local Sheriff, Bill Willoughby. Tensions rise in the small town as Willoughby’s supporters begin to express their dissatisfaction with the signs. Luckily, Mildred isn’t the type to be easily pressured into anything.
The film manages to balance being hilarious and genuinely sweet. There was only one scene that played out to laughs whilst I was still choking back tears from the previous scene. For the most part the balance is perfect and the tonal shifts compliments each other well. Director Martin McDonagh has previously excelled at walking this tightrope in his film In Bruges, and succeeds here where he arguably failed in Seven Psychopaths.
The film is about anger begetting further anger. The characters all pursue their own vendettas or crusades and end up wounding each other gravely, even when they’re working towards the same goal. Unintended consequences play out like a Shakespearean tragedy (or farce). There are, however, several moments where characters let go of anger, forgive each other and are rewarded for doing so. Despite the dark tone of the film, it is very definitely in favour of love over hate. The final scene of the film contains some very simple but sublime words on the subject of revenge.
The film is perfectly cast. McDormand is captivating as the foul mouthed, tough as nails mother who knows what’s right and won’t settle for less. Woody Harrelson is perfect as the seemingly straightforward but incredibly wise sheriff who clearly has affection for Hayes even as they butt heads, or maybe especially as they butt heads. Sam Rockwell plays perhaps the most complex figure of the film, though you wouldn’t know it from the first act in which he’s the small minded, small town sheriff we’re all familiar with. Deconstructing this archetype is a brilliant move by McDonagh.
Excellent supporting performances come care of the no nonsense Clarke Peters, Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges playing another angry young man, Peter Dinklage as the lusty town pool hustler, and John Hawkes as Mildred’s problematic ex-husband.
But it’s when these characters step out side of their stereotypes that the film really shines. There are very few simple villains in the piece and almost every character has a moment of supreme tenderness to challenge our assumptions about them. This never feels inexplicable as the philosophy of the film seems to be that most people are inherently good. Even the fuck-heads.
There is something of the Coen Brothers about the film, and it’s not the commanding presence of Francis Mcdormand, nor the reliably stirring soundtrack by Carter Burwell. It may be the plot contrivances that ensure a character is in exactly the wrong place at the right time, lending the events a sense of fate or inevitability. The film feels like a modern parable. Perhaps it is just that it manages to be so funny in spite of being so profound.
After the mixed bag of Seven Psychopaths, it’s gratifying to see Martin McDonagh make a truly worthy follow up to In Bruges. The film is as darkly funny and deeply emotional as his first effort.
5 / 5
Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.