Martin McDonagh’s likes his comedies like his coffee: black. Actually, I have no idea how McDonagh takes his coffee, if he takes it at all. But boy does he have a way with finding the humour in very dark situations. His first two features were uneven, but both In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths unearthed surprising depths among their myriad quirks. With his latest, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh has created a richer film, bubbling with tension, stark satire and even a hint of that elusive trait redemption.
Frances McDormand is riveting as Mildred Hayes, a small town shopkeep whose daughter was raped, murdered and set on fire. Months have passed but the police investigation has stalled. To turn the heat back up on her daughter’s cold case, she rents out three billboards near her home on the town outskirts, posting a message asking the town sheriff in three-foot letters what’s taking so long. Sheriff Willoughby (another memorable sketch from Woody Harrelson) feels terrible that the police haven’t tracked down the killer. But he’s got plenty of other problems to contend with, from his violence-prone slow-witted junior Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) to his own deteriorating health.
Mildred and the Sheriff face off, pulling their friends and associates into an absurdly escalating line of fire. McDormand is especially wonderful as the profane, driven mad by grief Mildred, as like to kick you in the nuts as say hello. Great character turns from Peter Dinklage, Clarke Peters, Zelko Ivanek, and John Hawkes ground Ebbing’s reality, while Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon is a racist alcoholic train wreck ready to pop at the slightest provocation.
McDonagh succeeds brilliantly by taking the tensions of a small town and setting the characters bouncing off of one another, like some podunk Rube Goldberg machine. There’s much method to the madness, and the chaos unleashed is deeply rooted in each character’s conflicting motivations. The violent turns can be breathtaking, but McDonagh always steers the film back to searing, wistful comedy. Turns out everyone has their reasons, and McDonagh doesn’t shy away from the cycles of abuse rampant in this Missouri town. By the end we can’t even say definitively where it’s all going. The film’s most conflicted characters might even find redemption, if they could just accept one another, and stop. That’s a tall order, but it’s there. If anyone cares to read the signs.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens across North America on Friday, November 10.