If you were to judge In Bruges director Martin McDonagh by his movies, you’d think him a cruel and unusual man. His latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, coaxes you to laugh along with its meanness, only to slap you across the face for having the audacity.
One moment a bungling cop is reading a witness statement from someone whose name he’s recorded as “lady with a funny eye”, the next you’re sucker-punched with a picture of a teenager’s charred corpse. What were you thinking, laughing at a time like this? You’re forever second-guessing yourself, wondering how a story about the aftermath of a brutal rape and murder gets away with so many laughs.
The titular billboards are located on a road made redundant by a new highway. It’s a neat metaphor for Ebbing, Missouri, which is the kind of Rust Belt town left to decay on the fringes of American society, forgotten by the economic and political powers that be, at least until voters in places like this helped propel Donald Trump to his unlikely victory.
Frances McDormand’s Mildred spies an opportunity in the trio of forlorn, peeling billboards and buys the space. “Raped While Dying” she prints in vast black-on-red letters on the first. “Still No Arrests?” reads the next. “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” asks the third.
This proves to be the opening salvo in a war between bereaved mother Mildred, the local constabulary and anyone else unlucky enough to be caught within the inescapable event horizon of her grief. The film hinges on the fraught relationship – antagonism served with a soupçon of respect – between Mildred and Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby, with McDonagh riffing on the idea of a Western-style face-off.
Both actors are on formidable form. McDormand has the stooped poise and clenched jaw of a woman made tough and mean through loss. Harrelson, meanwhile, is at his best as Willoughby, an ageing cop trying to hold his two-bit ‘burb together while coming to terms with terminal cancer. Both are essentially likeable people who lost the cosmic lottery.
This sets them apart in a town where most women are simpering idiots and most men are violent idiots – it’s best not to get too attached to anyone, lest they say or do something unspeakable in the next reel. But McDonagh isn’t willing to entirely condemn his creations, either; he sees a glimmer of light in even the darkest vessel. It’s a difficult balancing act, and it proves problematic in the case of Dixon, a violent, racist thug in the local police department who is afforded an amount of sympathy that seems at best unwise given the current political climate. Despite this, Sam Rockwell’s performance, a whirling dervish of repression, aggression and stupidity, is a joy.
Kerry Condon and Samara Weaving, meanwhile, play Dumb Attractive Female #1 and #2; both are pretty rotten stereotypes, milked for cheap laughs. Even Peter Dinklage’s good-guy rockabilly barfly is largely employed as a “dwarf!” punchline. This would all be enough to sink most movies, but there’s an incredible, dark energy at the heart of Three Billboards. The misanthropy is treacle-thick, and McDonagh plays wilful provocateur, pushing your buttons, making you question your feelings for the tragic, absurd people serving their life sentences in Ebbing, Missouri.
There are parallels with the Coen brothers’ Fargo that extend beyond the simple joy of seeing McDormand in the lead, with common themes of desperate people in desperate situations, resorting to increasingly desperate measures, all played out against grand American landscapes. Like the Coens, McDonagh is a firm believer in Murphy’s law. There are times when his characters appear to arrive at some form of redemption, only for things to unspool again, causing an even bigger mess. Nobody ever quits while they’re behind.
If Three Billboards were a commentary on contemporary America, it would be irredeemably bleak. But while it touches on issues that feel depressingly present – sexual assault, police brutality, racism – it doesn’t have anything very profound to say about them. The Rust Belt and its trappings are really just the backdrop against which McDonagh plays with his terrible, mesmerising toys. And when you have Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson in your toy-box, that’s enough.
First published in City A.M.