Seven months after the disappearance, discovery and investigation of Angela Hayes nothing has been done. In a final effort to jump-start the local police her mother Mildred rents out Three Billboards and begins her campaign for justice.
John Milton once wrote long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light. What writer director Martin McDonagh has committed to film here is nothing short of that journey fuelled by fury, tempered by inaction and instigated through desperation. If Three Billboards has a message it’s neither straightforward, awards friendly or lacking in brass balls given the current climate in Hollywood. That however should never overshadow the content or intent which is to tell a story, promote debate and open our eyes to the wider world.
Beginning on an isolated road in the dew laden moments of dawn, McDonagh paints a picture of small town Americana idyllic in its serenity. He quickly turns this on a dime however through the pipe bomb presence of Mildred Hayes. A grief ravaged divorced mother of two holding on to fury like a life raft, following the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. Carved from granite, cloaked in jumpsuit battle fatigues and dropping ‘f’ bombs like confetti, she is a force of nature battling a disinterested justice system and small town mentality.
From the opening frames McDormand is terrifyingly effective playing Mildred with an unrelenting sarcasm, brazenly bad ass machismo and maternal isolation. This war will be waged, there will be casualties and her methods will be bloody, bold and unforgiving. Aside from the broad strokes however it remains those rare moments of heart breaking honesty when that guard drops which make her performance Oscar worthy. In the darkest moments of this film words are exchanged, actions taken and consequences witnessed which ask complex moral questions. Tackling ignorance, racism and sexual assault was never winning McDonagh any new friends, but his film harbours so much light beneath the darkness that audiences will be divided. Three Billboards revels in shades of grey and asks the audience to do likewise, nowhere more so than through Sam Rockwell’s Jason Dixon.
His ability to pull off an intricate character arc without falling back on cliché, caricature or technique is worth the ticket price alone. By turns shocking, childish, revelatory and redemptive Dixon will go down as the role which cements Sam Rockwell reputation for good. Alongside Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby both stand accused of inaction in the face of immeasurable loss. Ambiguities are traded on throughout while supporting roles are pitched perfectly, unintentionally comedic yet compassionately understated.
Few film makers could have taken human violation as their central premise and instilled pathos, humour and realism into something so contentious. Martin McDonagh is worthy of both recognition and a wider audience which Three Billboards will hopefully promote over time. Playwright, film maker and master of the foulmouthed four letter put down, this film is not only essential viewing for new comers but a high water mark for indie filmmaking period.