In this darkly comic drama, a mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder, when they fail to catch the culprit.
Martin McDonagh has constantly impressed me with his potent mix of tragic plotting, dark comedy, and human emotions. Each of his three films (and his stage plays if I read correctly), incorporate each of those elements to varying degrees. “In Bruges” was like 40% dark comedy, 40% tragic plotting, and 20% human emotions. “Seven Psychopaths” runs more like 40% dark comedy, 40% human emotions, and 20% tragic plotting. “Three Billboards” leans in the other direction: 40% human emotions, 40% tragic plotting, and 20% dark comedy. His mundane approach to violence, dragging the ugly along with the beauty, has always whet my appetite for something distinct in cinema. This time we see him narrow in on the human experience and reward us as an audience.
McDonagh’s scripts offer cohesive logic fused with human emotion so that fantastic actors like Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and even Peter Dinklage get to show off. Man oh man what a cast too. Nobody fails. Some stars shine brighter than others but each actor leaves a distinct mark on this story impressing you with not just some caricature filling in your clichéd backwater town but real human emotion. A mother whose raw anger forms itself in the titular billboards is just as vile as she is hurt. A sheriff loved by all, faces criticism in his final month of living, measuring his successes and failures. Finally, an insecure manchild searching for approval lashing out with his authority as a local police officer pushed to grow.
This movie shows us characters we relate to in equal measures at different times and takes some of them to their utmost limits. The beauty in McDonagh’s film is that, even as we watch everyone descend into violent and chaotic actions, they grow and learn until we’re left with two unlikely characters getting in the car together to kill someone they don’t even know.
It’s this same plotting that drags “Three Billboards” by the end. Roughly twenty minutes too long and the entire film starts to drag. A LOT happens during the runtime of the film. Don’t get me wrong! I love the tension ratcheted through each scene as characters collide off each other either destroying or affirming one another. It’s a mélange of human emotions and we’re treated to each and every one multiple times. McDonagh probably loaded up a little too much at the buffet.
Ignoring the densely packed story it’s wonderfully shot. They make North Carolina look like any middle-of-nowhere town between the West and East coast. As much as McDonagh highlighted the beauty of Bruges in his previous film, he highlights the beauty of a small town nestled among rolling hills, even indulging in shots of Frances McDormand talking to a deer. Just as much as they display the beauty of the surroundings neither do they shy away from the ugliness of violence. In a particularly gruesome shot, Sam Rockwell pistol whips a guy, punches him, throws him out a window, and then clocks the secretary for screaming at him. It’s not pretty and the audience audibly ‘oohed’ when it happened.
If you’ve seen either of McDonagh’s works before then you know what to expect. If anything, I’d say this new film is more sympathetic towards all of its characters, asking us to see the goodness of each character as much as we see their darkness. McDonagh takes us from one extreme to another; from beautiful landscapes to violent fist fights; from high brow operatic vocals to hill country folk; from good to bad all over the course of the movie. It’s going to be a ridiculously hard movie to sell (dark comedies don’t always find their audience) but I can’t help but recommend it to everyone.
Considering how far Frances McDormand goes to receive one iota of justice in this world, we could learn a thing or two. Even better, McDonagh leaves us to make our own conclusions about the characters in his film but I like to think if a racist cop and a hurting mother can find common grounds for forgiveness, then there’s room in all of us for forgiveness. That’s just the optimist in me speaking. Please go see this movie in theaters.
In select theaters November 17th