Written by Chloe Dascoli
Martin McDonagh wrote the role of Mildred Hayes in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” specifically for Frances McDormand. When asked what he would have done had she turned down the role, he said he wouldn’t have made the movie at all. And it’s clear to see why. While the rest of the film feels half developed, McDormand powers through her strongest role yet.
“Three Billboards” is the story of Mildred and her search for justice. To her, that means setting up three glaring red billboards with 20-foot letters as a reminder to the police force she dubs “too busy torturing black folks to solve actual crime.”
Mildred is the driving force that keeps the rest of the film moving and it works because, much like McDormand, Mildred is a tough woman who isn’t easily intimidated. She can hold her own against any man. She is unafraid to speak her mind, and unwilling to play the games society expects of her. But Mildred, unlike McDormand, is also the mother of a daughter whose rape and murder remain unsolved. And that is the catalyst of the ensuing events.
“Three Billboards,” like McDonagh’s other films, is darkly comic, featuring characters dealing with loss and tragedy. While “In Bruges” (2008) and “Seven Psychopaths” (2012) are near caricatures, the humor here brings more realism to the film. But only at first. As the film goes on, the humor just feels misplaced, almost as if McDonagh couldn’t handle the weight of the subject matter and felt the need to lighten the mood with borderline slapstick comedy.
Lazy repetition – “It’s me, the dead guy,” Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) says three different times in letters he leaves – dulls, and the repeated verbal abuse toward women – played off as a joke – is unnecessary. While it may attempt to lend credibility to Mildred’s story, it fails, only making the interactions uncomfortable to watch and keeping the audience at arm’s length.
The only place the humor works throughout is in McDormand’s portrayal of Mildred. All she wants is someone to do something, anything, to find the person responsible for her daughter’s death. She’s bitter. She’s hurting. She’s allowed the biting quick wit and offhand jokes.
It seems McDonagh was too focused on creating a character for McDormand that he forgot that no character is separate from the whole. The supporting characters are half thought-out. Chief Willoughby’s own personal tragedy leads to a sudden, unprepared departure early on in the film. Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) – the racist, airheaded officer who harasses anyone he sees as different – has a come-to-Jesus moment that is too quick and easy to be convincing. All the right elements are there, but nothing is quite fully developed.
“Three Billboards” is somewhere in between McDonagh’s first film, the Oscar winning short, “Six Shooter” (2004), and his later full-lengths. Like his full-lengths, the majority of the film is a slight mockery on life’s tragedies, while McDormand, the film’s saving grace, brings a deeper examination of them. And while McDormand stuns in one of her few leading roles, the film’s shortcomings make her performance truly shine. But, really, she deserves so much more.