Directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges. Running time: 115 minutes.
Here we have the film that bears the greatest weight of expectation coming into the Academy Awards in March. Frances McDormand, it seems, is certain to claim Best Actress, and it also appears unlikely that Sam Rockwell will be denied Best Supporting Actor. Three Billboards also has a very credible chance of landing the big one; The Shape of Water is the current favourite, but Academy voters have exhibited an obvious preference for gritty drama in the Best Picture category in recent history, as well as a certain disregard for films with a fantasy or sci-fi element. Time will tell. Whatever its eventual haul of awards, this is certainly an enjoyable film, with McDonagh’s relentlessly morbid humour returning in fine fashion.
The titular billboards are rented by McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, and are inscribed with an explicitly worded inquiry as to the failure of the local police investigation into the rape and murder of her daughter. Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), to whom the message is personally addressed, is tasked with persuading the incorrigible Ms Hayes to remove the billboards, while also assuring her of his department’s continued efforts to apprehend her daughter’s attacker.
Everything progresses in civilised fashion for the first while. McDormand is resolute and stony-faced, and beautifully, hilariously impassive in the face of opposition. Harrelson is level-headed and wise, but frustrated by his opponent’s stubbornness. An abrupt twist in the narrative at about the halfway stage sees things descend rapidly into chaos.
McDormand’s performance is impeccable from the moment she appears onscreen. She brings a fierce energy to the role, and caps it beautifully in her exploration of the chinks in Mildred’s emotional armour. The film’s overarching motif is the examination of her perseverance in the face of unimaginable emotional turmoil, as well as attempts by others to undermine her. McDormand’s turn breathes life into it with magnificent style and feeling. Sam Rockwell also has tremendous fun with his dim-witted, racist cop, and proves to be a perfect outlet for Martin McDonagh’s distinctive style of black comedy.
The supporting performances are equally enjoyable. Caleb Landry Jones is effective as the unfortunate soul responsible for leasing the billboards to Mildred. Lucas Hedges also performs well as the son driven close to madness by the ineffable obstinacy of his mother.
The script has McDonagh’s trademark earthiness to it, creating a cast of eminently believable characters and weaving comic and tragic elements with deftness. It also creates an engaging setting, which is augmented by beautiful cinematography. Unfortunately, however, the story is allowed to stagnate in the second half, and the dramatic tension which builds sensationally from the opening scenes is allowed to ebb away towards the end.
Nevertheless, McDonagh has made a fine film, one that is not overshadowed by the masterful debut that was In Bruges, and that makes a marked improvement on Seven Psychopaths, his most recent offering. Their night on the red carpet in March will be well deserved.