This is a hell of a story and a hell of a film. It takes difficult subject matter – the violent death of a teenager, suicide – and with a clever plot, a smart and often humorous script, and spot on acting, delivers a movie which both makes you laugh and challenges you. No mean feat.
The film starts, simply and strikingly, with still images of three billboards, broken and tattered, standing alongside a road.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) drives past them and realises she can put them to good use. Seven months earlier her teenage daughter was raped and murdered, and she remains utterly frustrated and distraught that local police have made no headway in the case. So she pays to have the billboards display a provocative message, asking what the police have been up to. She names the local police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who most locals like, and this turns what was the town’s sympathy towards her into a distinctly negative emotion.
One of Sheriff Willoughby’s junior officers, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a not well educated racist (maybe that applies to all racists) with a violent temper, takes particular offence at the billboards.
The story takes us through this stand off between Mildred and her community, and provides an unexpected ending which is all the more satisfying for not being too neat and tidy. In particular the film explores Mildred’s grief, and how those who have never known the loss of a child may struggle to understand it and react to it. Into the mix we are confronted with Sheriff Willoughby’s own crisis, which sends the story spiralling into even deeper confrontation, confusion, and plot twists.
The writer and director Martin McDonagh reveals insight and empathy for his characters, even if they are rough diamonds we may at first shy away from. Mildred is devastated by her daughter’s death, but not cowed. She is outwardly combative and hardened. But we understand her more as McDonagh gives us heartbreaking images of Mildred’s torment, most noticeably how she’s kept her daughter’s bedroom untouched, and how, through a flashback, we learn why she might have reason to blame herself for her daughter’s death. It’s sad, and honest, but not unremitting. In a short but brilliantly played scene, Mildred is shockingly confronted with Willoughby’s own troubles. Her reaction, one of immediate compassion, is a moment that will linger long after the film.
There is also humour here, laugh out loud humour. There’s a question as to whether there might be too much of it, and whether it could belittle or make too light of a serious subject. In the end though I felt it worked to give the story some light and shade and allow the audience to digest it all the better.
The cast do fantastic work. McDormand, Harrelson and Rothwell are captivating, supported by a host of other strong performances. In particular I liked Caleb Landry Jones as Red, Peter Dinklage as James, Abbie Cornish as Anne, and Lucas Hedges as Robbie. This is a long list, and no actors let the side down.
Apart from the humour the other aspect of the film which gave me pause was the arc of Sam Rockwell’s character, Officer Dixon. He undergoes a significant transformation, so marked that at first take it may be a bit much to accept. I certainly asked myself the question, but there is a profound and dramatic event which signals the change in Dixon, and on balance I was willing to go with it. That, and the fact that Rockwell is so good in the role.
Writer Director McDonagh also presents an intriguing mix of music in his soundtrack. It veers from opera to country/folk, with plenty of time for no music at all. The key is when to play what music, and McDonagh seems to get it right all the way through his movie.
This film has already picked up awards, and rightly so. It’s a challenging film because of its subject matter and may not be to everyone’s taste. But it’s also one which leaves its mark. Very highly recommended.