The last time Martin McDonagh was at the Toronto Film Festival, his Seven Psychopaths was part of the midnight line-up, which felt appropriate considering how willfully ridiculous the film was. This time, though, he’s back with a powerful, angry, often hilarious film about grief and the question of whether or not we are really capable of healing after trauma, featuring instantly iconic performances from not one, but two of our best working actors.
The first time I saw Frances McDormand was in Blood Simple, but the first time I really took note of her was in Raising Arizona. She’s good as the lead in the earlier film, but she got to go big as Dot, wife of the unctuous Glenn, desperate for a baby of her own. That film felt like a major announcement for the Coens, a profoundly controlled piece of work where everything was part of creating a very specific comic voice. The following year, she was terrific in Mississippi Burning, and from that point on, I started watching for her, waiting to see what she’d do in films like Darkman and Short Cuts. Fargo changed everything for her, and since then, she’s been one of the most reliably versatile actors working. She’s given great performance after great performance, and she has a real eye for material.
Sam Rockwell is a very different kind of star, a wildfire you drop into a film just to see what will happen. And if you can give him an excuse to dance? Even better. Rockwell has this fascinating swagger that seems disproportionate to who he actually is, but then the longer you spend with him from film to film, you start to realize that the swagger fits just right. It’s easy to see him as a primarily comic actor, but he has that terrific ability to tap into the rage that drives much of his comedy, and he can be genuinely menacing if he wants, just as he can reveal depths of sweetness. That versatility is what often gets someone labeled a “character actor,” as if that’s not the point of acting in general. All that really means is that someone registers strongly in even small roles, and that’s true of Rockwell for sure.
Right now, we feel like we are more divided as a country than at any point since the explosive late ‘60s, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri is a perfect parable for where we find ourselves. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents three billboards on the side of a rarely-used road and uses them to send a furious message to Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Her daughter was raped and murdered, and there’s been no progress on her case, and Mildred has reached her breaking point. She wants justice. She wants someone to blame, and if that someone has to be Sheriff Willoughby, then so be it. That doesn’t sit well with Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Willoughby’s loyal but generally shitty employee. Once Mildred’s signs go up, the chaos that spins out of control ends up roping in almost everyone in town in some form or another, and things escalate in surprising ways.
I’m not sure what I’d do if I lost a child. I know it’s a cliche, but everything changed for me when I had my kids, and I am a different person for knowing them. There is so much I am looking forward to as they grow. Toshi’s just on the verge of being a teenager, and he’s such a sweet, centered, smart kid right now that I’m excited to see how he navigates the challenges of adolescence. It won’t be easy for him, but he’s up for the challenge. Allen’s different. Allen’s got a sense of himself that is unflappable, and he has a confidence that I don’t recognize because it certainly didn’t come from me. To miss any of those experiences would be devastating. To know that there would never be another new experience of any kind? That seems too big to accept, and that’s what Mildred is wrestling with in this film. It’s easy to say that McDormand is perfect for the role, but it goes deeper than that. There are very few actors of either gender who embody the steel at the heart of this wounded mother, and that’s what McDormand has that has always distinguished her. She’s got this immovable force at the center of her, and she has a way of giving voice to these characters who simply will not be swayed. She and Rockwell go to war in the film, and he brings out something really amazing in her, and vice versa. He’s so awful, so creepy, such a shitty little man, and it just pokes at Mildred. It pokes at that place in her that is already outraged. There is no justice for her little girl, and Dixon represents all the injustice this small town can muster, all wrapped in one racist little package.
Dixon’s easy to hate, but hard to forgive, and that’s the real sneaky point of the film. Setting up a character who is small and bigoted and angry and abusive makes it clear who you’re supposed to dislike in the film, but McDonagh wants you to feel something more than that. He wants to challenge you, to see what you do when you’re faced with someone who stands against everything you value and you’re asked to forgive that person. When the anger you feel is righteous, how do you let go of it? When the world isn’t fair, why should you be the one to turn the other cheek? Why should we forgive in the first place? Who is forgiveness for, and who benefits the most from it? As much as I like In Bruges, I think this is the first time McDonagh’s made something that is more than just a clever thrill. This is more akin to his stage work, where he’s grappled with some larger questions in some very stark ways. This is a mature piece of work, and it feels essential right now. Sometimes, a film feels like a conversation you need to have, a catharsis you have to feel, and that’s what this was for me. I’ve been so angry and so anxious since last November that I have seriously wondered how we’re supposed to function in a world this out of balance, and it feels like McDonagh is offering some much-needed perspective on those ideas. Carter Burwell’s score is lovely and spare, supporting without overselling, and it’s strikingly photographed by Ben Davis.
Overall, this is adult entertainment at its best, relevant and emotionally complex an written and directed with a clear trust that the audience is smart enough to deal with some nuance. It feels like the most successful effort yet from an artist who understands that we’re going to have to face some ugly truths if we ever hope to get better from here.
Running time: 115 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic