Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand face off in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photograph: Merrick Morton/AP
Martin McDonagh’s fiercely written, stabbingly pleasurable tragicomedy stars a magnificent Frances McDormand; watching it is like having your funny bone struck repeatedly, expertly and very much too hard by a karate super-black-belt capable of bringing a rhino to its knees with a single punch behind the ear.
It is a film about vengeance, violence and the acceptance of death, combining subtlety and unsubtlety, and moreover wrongfooting you as to what and whom it is centrally about. The drama happens in a town with an insidiously pessimistic name – Ebbing, Missouri, a remote and fictional community in the southern United States, where the joy of life does seem to be receding. There is a recurrent keynote of elegiac sadness established by the Irish ballad The Last Rose of Summer and Townes Van Zandt’s country hit Buckskin Stallion Blues, a musical combination which bridges the Ireland which McDonagh has written about before and the America he conjures up here, an America which has something of the Coen Brothers. The resemblance is not simply down to McDormand, though she does give her best performance since her starring role as the pregnant Minnesota police chief in the Coens’ Fargo in 1996.
Careworn warrior … Frances McDormand in Three Billboards. Photograph: AP
McDormand is Mildred Hayes, a middle-aged woman toughened and weatherbeaten by tragedy, who sometimes affects a bandana, giving her the look of a careworn warrior. She is separated, working in an uninviting gift shop and living with her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) while her no-account husband Charlie (John Hawkes) has left her to be with a 19-year-old woman employed at the town zoo, a place which we never see.
Some time previously, Mildred’s teenage daughter was raped and murdered and no arrests have been made. So Mildred rents three unused billboards just outside of town, demanding to know why the town’s police chief has achieved precisely nothing. The three billboards are cathartic monuments to her rage and grief; they attract the attention of local TV news (though not apparently social media) and astonish and infuriate the town authorities in ways she clearly intends and welcomes. The police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) coolly declines to be provoked, with troubles of his own, but his incompetent, jeeringly racist deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) takes a very different view. The three billboards are a catalyst, creating and accelerating crises that are only indirectly connected to Mildred’s own tragedy.
Frances McDormand’s face eloquently conveys someone who is past hoping, past fearing, though not past caring. She is in her desolate way “the last rose of summer / Left blooming alone / All her lovely companions / Are faded and gone” and oddly the town’s dwarf, wittily played by Peter Dinklage, has a major crush on her, and his gallant admiration is to play an important role. Yet the film shows how the collectively irrational populace starts to blame her protest for the disaster which befalls Chief Willoughby himself, an entirely separate situation which is to bleed into her own.
The comedy, the pain and the poignancy are accompanied by shocking spasms of ultraviolence and rage, which have a distancing effect, though not an ironising one. I found myself thinking of the Coens’ No Country for Old Men and the Irish ballad incidentally brought back their use of Danny Boy in Miller’s Crossing. The cops are not necessarily the bad guys, or the good guys, and interestingly it is only when a certain officer is relieved of his gun and badge that he becomes effective in law enforcement. People we thought were just cartoons, gradually assume the lineaments of rounded human beings.
And this brings us to the critical backlash to this film: a feeling in some quarters that for all its powerful and compelling female lead, the movie appears obtuse on race and blackness by making it a subsidiary function of the white characters’ moral journey. There is something in this, although in life as in art these are the characters for whom a moral journey is necessary.
There is a strangeness to this film, a hallucinatory farcical quality which periodically surfaces: enough to make you suspect that some rug-pull is in the offing, a trick reveal. But this isn’t the point. It is a film which offers no clear reassurance on tone or narrative direction or who you must laugh with and at. And Frances McDormand holds it all together: a Mother Courage resolved on action and toughly holding on to her sense of order and sense of humour.