FRANCES McDormand is a force to be reckoned with in Martin McDonagh’s intimate epic, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Cert 15A, 115 mins).
The filmmaker’s third feature-length outing, Three Billboards is a film mired in all sorts of tragedy, delving into characters as they grieve over the loss of a loved one, and others as they come to terms with their own approaching demise.
Yet from all this pain, McDonagh finds a way to inspire joy, provoke lasting contemplation and deliver effortless laughs with razor-sharp wit and deep, dark humour.
Sick of the local law enforcement’s lacklustre efforts in hunting down her daughter’s murderer, Mildred Hayes (McDormand) rents out three billboards on the outskirts of town, plastering them with a damning message aimed squarely at the town’s sheriff, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
More so than the sheriff himself, Mildred’s controversial act is a smack in the face to his second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) – a violent drunk at whom accusations of racism are frequently levelled.
Though intended to light a fire under the town’s lawmen, Mildred’s act of defiance sends shockwaves throughout Ebbing, revealing its inhabitants at their best, their repugnant worst and their most devastatingly human.
Crafted with a precision honed over two solid directorial efforts, an Oscar-winning short and a celebrated playwriting career, McDonagh’s tightly woven narrative catches us off guard time after time, like an unpredictable series of devious chess moves.
Every surefooted dramatic step, insignificant as some may feel, has a part to play in Three Billboards.
This is masterful filmmaking: heartbreaking and emotional, but never sentimental; leisurely paced but never sluggish; didactic and intensely thought-provoking, but never heavy-handed.
Each player in this expansive cast turns in a performance that will likely sit at the critical zenith of their filmographies for years to come.
While the ostensible adversary from word one (if Mildred’s billboards are to be taken at face value) Harrelson’s Sheriff Willoughby is perhaps the story’s most compassionate figure – an instigator of certain acts both calculated and considerate; acts that push the narrative in directions we never expect.
Rockwell’s Officer Dixon is drunken, violent and erratic – an unstable buffoon and a seeming bigot.
And yet, coupled with McDonagh’s deft, authentic approach to crafting his characters, Rockwell’s Golden Globe-winning performance moulds Dixon’s despicable presence into something genuinely human; against all odds, we find ourselves quietly rooting for this idiot.
Ultimately, however, Three Billboards is all about Mildred – all about Francis McDormand’s powerful, tragic and inspiring performance.
There’s something almost Terminator-like about Mildred’s intensity, her perseverance through grief and unquenchable thirst for justice.
Like the best dramatic turns, we know instinctively that no one else could play Mildred and, accordingly, McDormand gives us one of the year’s finest performances.
As with McDonagh’s Irish-set plays, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri exists in a kind of imagined America, somewhere between reality and what an outsider perceives looking in.
Consequently, unbound to questions of authenticity, his story manages to say more about modern America than any exercise in precise realism ever could.
From the offset, we’re never sure where Three Billboards will end up.
This is a story laden with twists; twists both in narrative and our own perception, twists that provoke a change in our outlook on life and, as only the greatest films do, provoke a change in us on a fundamental level, leaving us a different person to the one that entered the cinema.
These day, few films hold that power.