You’re likely to come out of Three Billboards feeling very emotionally confused. There almost certainly won’t be many films funnier than this in 2018, but there are equally unlikely to be many that leave you so emotionally devastated. It’s a comedy drama in perfect balance. You’ll be crying for all sorts of reasons.
This is the perfect marriage of writer-director and star. Martin McDonagh, who made the fabulous In Bruges, wrote the role of Mildred Hayes for Frances McDormand (Fargo). Thank god she said yes because it’s unimaginable that anybody else could play her. Mildred is the mother of a murdered girl, who was raped and horribly killed in the small town of Ebbing. After seven months there has been no progress on the investigation. Furious, Mildred puts up three billboards asking the local sheriff (Woody Harrelson), “Raped while dying. And still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?” The act brings the murder back into the town’s conversation, but it’s mixed between those who support Willoughby and those siding with Mildred.
The main players here are so blinded by their own misfortunes that they can’t see the misfortunes of others. What the film does, rather beautifully, is reveal its characters’ private agony, to us and the other characters, so that a healing understanding develops. McDonagh has written rich, surprising characters and enlisted the best actors to play them. McDormand plays Mildred as a woman who won’t let the world have her pain. She jokes, teases, insults and attacks to get what she needs. McDormand can make her hugely funny without cracking a smile. That hidden pain, though, has to push through and McDormand lets out only as much as is necessary. There is a moment in which she simply says the name of her living son, “Robbie”, but packs it with so much fear and desperation that it stops your breath. Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, as a deputy of confident uselessness, are top drawer support.
Getting comedy from horrible situations has always been McDonagh’s strength, but here he’s found a story that gives him more than just set-ups, it gives him a throbbing heart. This is his masterpiece.