Powerhouse Frances tops Billboard
Superb McDormand dominates Martin McDonagh's bleakly comic drama, says Paul Whitington
Even when he was wowing them on Broadway with his rowdy plays set in a feverishly imagined Ireland, Martin McDonagh dreamed of making movies. It was the medium he'd grown up watching and when he won an Oscar for his first short film, Six Shooter, he must have decided this movie-making is a doddle.
He followed it up with In Bruges (2008), a brash, noisy comedy which was genuinely funny at times, and felt a bit like Ionesco for the Tarantino generation. In Seven Psychopaths (2012), McDonagh moved Stateside to tell the story of a Hollywood screenwriter's collision with a minor mobster.
It too was pretty good in parts, but McDonagh's set pieces sometimes felt contrived, and his demonstrations of cleverness tended to get in the way of his characters' credibility. But in his new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, he has for the most part stopped deconstructing cinema and started making it. His enterprise benefits hugely from the presence of Frances McDormand, and from start to finish, she is the powerhouse of this flawed but interesting film.
Mildred Hayes is a devastated woman, mourning the rape and murder of her daughter Angela just seven months previously. The assailant was never caught and local law enforcement seem to have lost interest in the case. But while other people might have been broken by this experience, Mildred is incandescent and when she passes three abandoned billboards outside Ebbing, she hatches an attention-grabbing plan. She rents them and puts up three giant posters which, when read in sequence, proclaim 'Raped while dying', 'And still no arrests', 'How come, Chief Willoughby?'.
Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is Ebbing's long-suffering sheriff, who turns out to have problems of his own. He's just discovered he has terminal cancer when he finds out about the billboards. Soon the local TV news channel is all over the story and when Willoughby tries to reason with Mildred, he's rebuffed in memorably colourful terms.
She's too angry to see it, but Willoughby is one of the few people in Ebbing who sympathises with her, and understands her actions. Most others are furious: Mildred and her teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) are shunned and one of Willoughby's underlings sets out to make their lives a misery. Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) isn't the sharpest tool in the shed and when he decides to burn down Mildred's billboards, he unleashes a chaotic chain of events.
Three Billboards is more ambitious than Martin McDonagh's previous films in the sense that it incorporates a plot into his familiar schema of foul-mouthed cynics, desperate losers and gratuitously violent criminals.
Like virtually every other playwright who ever turned to movies, he doesn't know when to shut up and let the pictures do the talking, but this film is far more visually accomplished than its predecessors. And while words still fly thick and fast, in McDormand he has a star who knows how to make them count. Her Mildred is a despairing woman with nothing to lose - she's determined to make someone pay for her daughter's horrific end and doesn't much care who.
She's so consumed by her own suffering, she doesn't have time for anyone else's, but in the film's most touching moment she suddenly sees Willoughby's pain and manages to empathise. I loved the scenes between McDormand and Harrelson, two superb screen actors who use pauses as eloquently as words. But Willoughby is the only other individual who seemed actually three-dimensional to me and characters like Mildred's gallant suitor James (Peter Dinklage) and visiting police chief Abercrombie (Clarke Peters) feel more like dramatic appendages than people.
After a while, the jokes get desperate, but for a long time McDonagh's robust and emotional drama works, and McDormand is superb as the embattled but resourceful Mildred.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, (15A, 115mins)
Films coming soon...
The Post (Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk); Coco (Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal); The Commuter (Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson); The Final Year (Barack Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Power).