Three Billboards is the latest film from director Martin McDonagh. Fresh from multiple victories at the Golden Globes (Best Drama, Best Actress in a Drama, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay – not too shabby), it centres around the blistering anger of Mildred Haynes, a mother who takes on the local police force after the abduction, rape and murder of her teenage daughter Angela. The film takes its name from the trigger of the plot; Mildred decides to install three huge billboards on the road into her town, calling out the police force for their lack of action. What takes place instead is a fascinating study into small town American life: how the locals react, the racial tensions at play in the south of America and how the town comes to terms with the act of abhorrent violence. An unrelenting tale of misery, but told in a weirdly optimistic manner. McDonagh toes the line between comedy and tragedy with finesse. From images of a charred corpse, to a gory suicide, to brutal assault, this is not a film for the faint hearted.
The plot focuses on three central characters: Captain Willoughby, the kind-hearted captain charged with the running of the police station, who becomes somewhat of a moral compass for the film. The tearaway, off-the-rails racist cop Dixon also takes centre stage. We learn that he scraped his way through the police academy, struggles with alcohol and anger, and still lives under his verbally-abusive mother’s thumb. And of course, Mildred Haynes, who toes the line between protagonist and antagonist. I personally was always routing for Mildred, her anger was palpable and although her decisions reckless, came from a place of love and suffering.
What was striking to me was the simple acts of beauty and kindness throughout the film. The billboards, originally a site of anger and action, slowly transform in the duration of the film into a site of understanding and coming together. Mildred plants flowers and tends to them at various points, but without this being explicitly commented on. The flowers and her dedication to maintaining them help show the softening of her character; a woman who, for lack of a better phrase, simply takes no sh*t. The scene between her and the (admittedly poorly cgi-ed) deer is enough to bring a tear to the eye, as the harden mask begins to show cracks. We see a tired, hard-working, abused, single-mother lament the tragedy which has taken control of her life. Similarly, Officer Dixon, a horribly unstable characters who is down-right unwatchable at moments, gets, somewhat, of a redemption in the simple act of saving Angela Hayes’ case file from the burning station. Something as simple as saving a file is subtle enough to reflect a change in Dixon’s character. It’s these moments of nuance that make the film so effective.
Other stand out moments included the excruciating scene at the dentist and the altercation in the gift shop between Mildred and a man she suspects to be her daughter’s murderer. A scene infuriating and creepy enough to make the hairs on your neck stand up. As little said about this the better and it has to be seen to receive the justice this moment merits. Also, the midpoint of the film which features the three posthumous letters from Willoughby is incredibly touching; another example of the moments of beauty throughout the film. These insightful, moving letters sit at the heart of the drama and spur forward the action.
The film plays with the idea of morality. No character is simply good or simply evil. Each gets some form of redemption arc, and calls into question acts of atonement. For me, the point the film makes is that no character can act in a fully moral manner, no-one is allowed to be fully redeemed. My only reservations about the film is that the brutal rape and murder of Angela Haynes is placed in the background of the film. The film instead focuses on the racial politics of small town America and at points becomes more focused on Officer Dixon. I don’t think enough is said about the misogynistic violence that forms the background of the plot and I don’t think the racism is handled with enough nuance. Perhaps this is due to McDonagh’s experience as a white man from Ireland; not a criticism of him, but just the nuance and subtleties of this part of the film felt lacking to me (annoying, in a film where nuance plays such a key role). But nevertheless, the film is a knockout.
– Lowri Ellcock