British/Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) turns his attention to America's Deep South in this challenging drama loaded with ethical quandaries for which there are no clear answers. Which is perhaps is the point.
The film has an undeniably dramatic hook: Frances McDormand stars as divorcée Mildred, whose teenage daughter was brutally raped and murdered the previous year. Frustrated by the lack of progress in the case from the local police, headed by Woody Harrelson's beleaguered Chief Willoughby, Mildred rents three unused billboards and uses them to publically call Willoughby to task.
Doing so causes a huge ruckus in her small town, who are predominantly loyal to the cops. But Mildred perserveres, much to her personal detriment.
McDonagh has always displayed an affection for juxtaposing dark humour with tragic drama, but the elements don't mix as well here. Or maybe it's just that the filmmaker doesn't want to instruct the viewer how to react – it's never entirely clear, and makes for an often uncomfortable viewing experience. That dynamic is most evident in the character played by Sam Rockwell, a violent, racist deputy that McDonagh goes to great pains to humanise.
The film's moral ambiguities aside, it stands as a powerful showcase for some top-tier acting talent. McDormand is an absolute force of nature, her pain positively seeping from the screen. Harrelson projects considerable weight, and the long-underappreciated Rockwell is simply fantastic, despite his character's pronounced awfulness. Some of cinema's greatest character actors fill out the edges of the film.
Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
R16 (Violence, rape themes, suicide & offensive language)
Often difficult, never boring.
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