There aren’t many writer-directors who could tell a story of small-town rape, murder, grief and guilt at the same time as taking you down all sorts of black-comic paths and having immense fun with the writing and acting along the way. But Martin McDonagh (‘In Bruges’, ‘Seven Psychopaths’) is one of them, and his bloody and ballsy third film, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’, takes his work to a new level of versatility and surprise.
It’s almost a year since Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, on absolutely roaring form) lost her teen daughter to an unknown rapist and murderer. She’s angry, as well as distraught, and she pays for a series of disused billboards outside her town to carry huge posters asking why no one has been arrested yet. She points the finger at Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), simply because he’s the sheriff, and that makes her public enemy number one. Everyone takes against her, from her abusive and philandering former husband (John Hawkes) to a rash and racist hothead young cop, Dixon (Sam Rockwell, a blinding performance, brilliantly comic, but so much more). Even the priest sits her down for a chat. But she’s having none of it: she just becomes more determined to fight anyone who gets in her way.
From there, ‘Three Billboards’ takes all sorts of unexpected turns, and what starts off looking like a story of a wronged mother fighting for justice becomes much more muddy, unusual and meandering. Sure, she’s shaking things up, but is she going too far, and should Willoughby be taking all this heat? For one, he’s dying. And even Dixon might not be the gutter snake he seems. McDonagh showed in ‘In Bruges’ and ‘Seven Psychopaths’ that he can flip in a second between laughs and violence, but there’s a new layer of compassion here too. ‘Three Billboards’ plays like a country ballad that’s full of improvised riffs on old themes: its verses head off in different directions, some violent and swearing, others reflective or funny. It’s full of sharp dialogue and entertaining characters and fuelled by a wryly enlightened view of our world and how it can be at once cruel and caring. For a story built on such dark foundations, it’s weirdly reassuring. It’s also enormous fun.