Tragicomic is the word that springs to mind when considering Martin McDonagh’s films. Lethal injections of Tarantino-esque comedic violence permeate them all, most notably in the gangster noir In Bruges and the deranged Seven Psychopaths. However, his most recent offering, 3 Billboards Ouside Ebbing, Missouri (released in the UK last Friday) throws a lot more heart into the mix than his previous creations in its premise. There’s an inevitable Coen brothers influential feel, most likely instilled by Frances McDormand considering her parts in Fargo and Burn After Reading. She proffers an Oscar worthy (place your bets, there’s no question) and now Golden Globe winning turn as a frustrated and broken-hearted mother of a murdered child, who takes it upon herself to finance the assembly of 3 extremely large and loud billboards in her home town, calling out the incompetency of the town’s police department in relation to her daughter’s case. It’s a character study on the lengths that a bereaved parent might take, and the butterfly effects the case has on the rest of the town.
3 Billboards has broken McDonagh’s run of intimidating male leads in his inclusion of a frankly outrageous McDormand, whose part was written with her in mind, as well as Sam Rockwell’s role as the racist, thuggy bulldog on the police force. Woody Harrelson also puts in a really memorable performance as the town’s Chief of Police who is coming to terms with a terminal cancer prognosis, although the casting of Abbie Cornish as his wife seems like an unnecessary red flag as she is 21 years his junior, tarnishing the authenticity of a family that McDonagh needs his audiences to connect with.
A thread that is seamed through his pictures is the creation of a grey area between hero and villain. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson’s hitmen in In Bruges are extremely loveable, even Ralph Fiennes’ mob boss softens and has strict moral principles. This shines through both Sam Rockwell’s character arc and in Mcdormand’s manic, fiery devotion to her fight for justice, even if this means drilling a hole through her dentist’s thumb. Compassion, however, is the lesson learnt by all of the key players in McDonagh’s match of wits. A particularly memorable scene sees McDormand and Harrelson screaming obscenities at each other in an office in the police station, before the Chief accidentally coughs blood into her face due to his illness. The switch from anger to benevolence between the two when she tells him ‘I know you didn’t [mean to] baby’ is such an honest portrait of the goodness that resides in both, a lesson that people can switch in an instant if their sensibilities are called to, regardless of their pride and resilience.
McDonagh finds relentless humour in the darkness, an extremely important trope in this day and age, without losing a sense of the tragic. 3 Billboards is the blackest of comedies with a lot of cracking one liners (Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage announcing that he has to go use the ‘little boys room’ being a memorable one) and a whole lot of soul, and it will easily secure a place as one of the best films of the year.
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell