Awards favourite Frances McDormand is in fearsome form

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Verdict: A modern masterpiece

Rating:

Martin McDonagh’s pulsatingly enjoyable film is a thriller, a dissection of small-town America, and a forensic study of what makes ordinary people tick, all in one.

You could add tragedy to that, and comedy. As a story of a woman raging against a male establishment, it’s also timely. No wonder it arrives in our cinemas with the lavish endorsement of last weekend’s Golden Globe awards, having scooped four, including one for Best Picture in the drama category. If these things were political, which they are, Three Billboards would now ride the anti-Harvey Weinstein ticket all the way to the Academy Awards.

But it’s a film, not a cause, with a raft of performances which match the quality of McDonagh’s writing and directing (just like those of Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in his wonderful 2008 debut feature In Bruges).

Above all, it gives the great Frances McDormand her meatiest role since Fargo more than 20 years ago. She is simply magnificent as fierce, grieving, mischievous Mildred Hayes, a woman at war with the world following the rape and murder of her daughter Angela, seven months earlier. With the Ebbing police department seemingly incapable of solving the terrible crime, Mildred takes the only course she feels is open to her, scraping together the money to rent three huge, dilapidated billboards, unused since 1986, just outside town.

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

She deploys them to shame the local police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, also terrific). ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’ screams the last of the posters, in vast letters. How come there have still been no arrests in the months since the ghastly death of her daughter?

Willoughby presides over an inept and racist force, but it is typical of McDonagh’s screenplay, which is anything but predictable, that the chief is himself a man of integrity, devoted to his wife and two daughters and aghast not to have caught Angela’s killer.

He is also dying of cancer, and appeals to Mildred to give him a break. But she is unmoved. ‘Well, they wouldn’t be as effective after you croak, right,’ she says of the billboards.

McDonagh, though a Londoner, delivers a compellingly brilliant study of the mores of Hicksville, USA. Trump’s America, if you will. The good folk of Ebbing are far more outraged by the upsetting posters than by the failure to catch the killer.

The local priest comes round to talk Mildred into taking them down, only to get sent away with a very angry flea in his ear.

Most indignant of all is a notably stupid cop, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a mummy’s boy (and boy, you should see mummy) beneath whose racism and brutality Chief Willoughby mystifyingly discerns a core of decency.

Rockwell, another of Sunday’s Golden Globe winners as Best Supporting Actor, alongside McDormand (Best Actress) and McDonagh (Best Screenplay), is outrageously brilliant as Dixon. We can all but hear the cogs in his brain turning, albeit very slowly.

Somehow, he even walks like a man with a single-digit IQ, and there is a shocking scene in which he turns his pent-up fury against the town’s advertising man (Caleb Landry Jones).

But let me just add, without issuing any spoilers, that there are no one-dimensional characters in this film.

Martin McDonagh's pulsatingly enjoyable film is a thriller, a dissection of small-town America, and a forensic study of what makes ordinary people tick, all in one, writes Brian Viner 

Martin McDonagh's pulsatingly enjoyable film is a thriller, a dissection of small-town America, and a forensic study of what makes ordinary people tick, all in one, writes Brian Viner 

Martin McDonagh’s pulsatingly enjoyable film is a thriller, a dissection of small-town America, and a forensic study of what makes ordinary people tick, all in one, writes Brian Viner 

Mildred herself must grapple with the uncomfortable knowledge that she wasn’t as good a mother to Angela as she might have been, not that she spares too much thought for her surviving child, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), as she wages her singular moral crusade.

As if all this weren’t enough, there is oodles more to relish. Mildred has a lovelorn admirer, a sad, gallant dwarf (Peter Dinklage), and an abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) now shacked up with a pretty, dim-witted teenager (Samara Weaving) who is not quite sure of the difference between polo and polio.

These secondary characters, including Clarke Peters as a senior cop who arrives in town like the righteous sheriff in a Western, facilitate some of the film’s most potent flashes of wit, and also some of its most heart-rending moments of tenderness.

I have only one small gripe. The Australian actress Abbie Cornish is miscast as Willoughby’s wife, Anne. She’s too young, too voluptuously lovely, to be entirely convincing.

But it’s the tiniest blemish in a modern masterpiece.

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