Irish playwright and director Martin McDonagh may be the maestro of black humor, but he sets himself a nearly impossible task with his new film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” The fact that he pretty much pulls it off is a tribute not only to McDonagh’s skills as a dramatist, but also to a cast headed by the indomitable Frances McDormand and including Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.
This is classic McDonagh: very funny, very violent and surprisingly moving.
At first, “Three Billboards,” which premiered on Monday at the Venice International Film Festival, seems quieter and more sober than McDonagh’s first two features, the wickedly dark “In Bruges” and the thoroughly depraved “Seven Psychopaths.” The lead characters in those films were a pair of hitmen on the run and a screenwriter summoning up a passel of, well, psychopaths, and there was a glee and relish to the violence — as there was to the carnage he put onstage in raw and exhilarating plays like “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “A Beheading in Spokane.”
But the lead character in “Three Billboards” is neither a psychopath nor inclined toward bloodletting, at least not at first. McDormand’s Mildred Hayes is simply a mother consumed by grief and anger — because nine months before the film begins, her teenage daughter was found raped and murdered, burned to death on a remote road where three empty, tattered billboards stood.
Desperate to shame the police into restarting a stalled investigation, Mildred pays $5,000 to have messages put on the billboards: “RAPED WHILE DYING” on the first, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?” on the second and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” on the third.
Chief Willoughby, understandably, doesn’t like the billboards, though, as played by Woody Harrelson, he’s a man of considerably more nuance than you might expect. You might not initially say the same about Sam Rockwell’s Jason Dixon, an oafish officer whose solution to most problems starts with bluster and ends with a beating.
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The billboards set in motion a sequence of events that changes the town dramatically — and as you might expect from the deliciously twisted mind of McDonagh, those events include a lot of bloodshed and just as much humor.
But that’s the impossible task here: How do you begin a movie with the specter of a teenage girl who’s been raped and murdered, and then convince an audience that it’s OK to laugh?
If you’re smart, you start with Frances McDormand, whose character is as rough and worn as the billboards she rents and as blunt as the message she puts on them. Her Mildred is a force of nature, a relentless advocate for justice who finds a kind of gallows humor in her bottomless well of hurt and despair. She has nothing to lose and no concern for whomever she might take down with her, and there is a grim power and, yes, real humor in her quest.
There are times in “Three Billboards” when the themes and events are so dark and ugly that the humor is stopped dead in tracks and the laughs get caught in your throat. And after an unexpected twist halfway through the film, the pacing slackens and McDonagh struggles to keep the story on track as the violence escalates to ludicrous levels, as it almost always does in one of his works.
But McDonagh, who won an Oscar in 2006 for his first film, the short “Six Shooter,” knows how to set and maintain a mood, aided by Carter Burwell’s score and by the judicious use of evocative songs like the traditional tunes “Last Rose of Summer” “Streets of Laredo” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Blackish Stallion Blues.”
Filling the town with the likes of John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges and a priceless Peter Dinklage doesn’t hurt, either.
And by the end, as Mildred and Jason find themselves in an uneasy alliance and Rockwell shows us a richer character than we’d imagined, this becomes the story of ravaged, wounded, entirely human and very funny people working to tamp down their rage and accommodate their failings. At points, “Three Billboards” probably becomes the closest thing McDonagh has put on film to his greatest plays, where often as not we find characters seeking the tiniest bits of redemption and healing amidst over-the-top carnage and wreckage largely of their own making.
Those plays found a place where transgressive violence and the blackest of humor could coexist in a way that carried real poignancy. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” does the same.