The film just received a slew of Golden Globe nominations, which is always both a compliment and something producing a mild guffaw to those familiar with the Globes’ history. But in this case, it seems the nominations are mostly deserved.
The film is rough—in topic, attitude (at times) and language. It concerns an angry and unforgiving mother (Frances McDormand, Oscar-winner for Fargo back in 1997) whose daughter’s rape-and-murder case is unsolved. To move things along, she rents out three billboards calling attention to the local police force’s apparent lack of success or interest. She names the chief of police by name, causing rifts and anger in the townspeople, who understand her deep sadness but aren’t tracking with her methods.
There are a lot of ways to look at Three Billboards. It’s perhaps the year’s best acting showcase; it’s a study in rage, unforgiveness and hate; and it’s a look into life in the kind of rural setting that mainstream films don’t usually explore.
First, the acting. McDormand may well win her second Oscar for this role. She’s unapologetically ugly and relentless in character (and scruffy in appearance, to say the least), with an occasional display of humor (usually very dark humor). Her fierce rage coats her sense of sadness and loss, making her consistently hard to relate to, even as we sympathize with her plight. McDormand is an American treasure, and this unusual lead role gives her the opportunity to show us how gifted she really is. Her performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Sam Rockwell is another reason. He finally gets the role that shows what he can do. It’s a difficult one, and one that isn’t always believable in its various turns. But it’s rich and complex, and Rockwell may pick up his own Oscar for it (he’ll certainly be nominated). In many ways, his character is the most intriguing in the film, even moreso than McDormand’s. And his performance moves from the supporting category to the male lead over time, which takes the film in different and more interesting directions, and which is catnip for folks voting for supporting performances.
Just as good is Woody Harrelson, who would be nominated for his role (IMHO) if Rockwell weren’t garnering all the attention. His role as the police chief named on the billboard is a fine character study of a man of surprising depth and sensitivity. Harrelson’s background in comedy comes in handy here, as it helps express the softer and even lighter side of a man who cares deeply about things, is kinder than you expect, and is smarter than first appearances might suggest. It’s a role of unexpected impact, and (spoiler alert) when his character is gone, his presence isn’t.
Even the more minor roles are strong. Lucas Hedges (Oscar nominated for last year’s Manchester by the Sea) is solid as McDormand’s character’s son. Relative newcomer Caleb Landry Jones creates a complex but utterly believable character as the one renting the billboards. John Hawkes as the ex-husband is as good as he always is, though his new romantic relationship doesn’t always ring with truth. Peter Dinklage has a rather thankless role, and does his best with it, though the role borders on the unbelievable as well. And the criminally underutilized Zeljko Ivanek is strong as a sargeant, but is … underutilized.
The film is written and co-directed by Britain’s Martin McDonagh, probably best known for In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. The screenplay is strong in conception, and often prefers (wisely and effectively) to leave out the visualization of some actions in favor of showing the responses. It’s a bit too strong on coincidence (or at least apparent coincidence), and the narrative turns it takes are not always completely believable. Perhaps the greatest challenge to most viewers will be the story directions taken by the film after such a strong narrative set-up. The subplots may be one or two too many, and the (spoiler alert again) lack of resolution of one thread and the decision to have the two leads head off in a different direction challenges credibility. The intense lock-down of the actors on their characters, however, goes a long way in smoothing over some of the bumpier story elements.
The film’s themes, which often are so deeply buried in other films, suggest that they are to be more readily viewed here. The big question is what McDonagh is trying to say. The phrase “hate begets hate” is actually spoken (rather than inferred), and more than once, and in such a way as to comically neutralize it as a genuine theme. Is he afraid of pulling the idea up to the surface, feeling it necessary to compromise the reading with humor?
The role of parenting in creating broken, hateful people is uncomfortably and shockingly portrayed, and not only in the most obvious character. Regret, too, is demonstrated, subtly and indirectly and therefore more powerfully. The film almost falls apart with the introduction of a deus ex machina person and situation that is initially satisfying, if only shallowly, and then frays into insignificance.
Lastly, the film is an outsider’s look at rural America. There are moments of grace and respect, and moments of borderline condescension. But this is primarily a character study of many a character, a study that rises above its setting and even its narrative threads. It’s not an easy view (and the f-bombs are voluminous and perhaps just a bit overused), but it’s a unique journey into a place, a series of related events, and the ins and outs of the human heart.