November 28, 2017 – I was eager to see this film because it looked like a showcase for Frances McDormand's talents as a comic actress, but while this script provives a very meaty role for her and other actors in the film, it is a dark comedy with more dark than comedy. There is a lot of ugly stuff going on besides murder: There is misogyny, homophobia, racism and suicide. There are also a lot of unlikely coincidences in this film, along with a flood of raw emotions and obscenities.
McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, the mother of a murdered daughter, Angela (played by Kathryn Newton). Mildred wants to see justice done, but settles for something else in this part dark comedy, part soap opera, part drama. Not hearing from the police for seven months, Mildred has messages placed on three billboards outside of town to put pressure on the police to solve the crime.
The three billboards, with red backgrounds, in all caps, big, black, bold sans serif letters, has one message, continuing from one billboard to the next, which reads, “RAPED WHILE DYING,” “AND STILL NO ARRESTS,” “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” Police Chief Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson of “War for the Planet of the Apes”) is offended by the billboards, and rightly so, it turns out. As surprising as it seems to Mildred, the police did their due diligence, but were unable to solve the case.
Coincidentally, Willoughby is not only a nice guy and a very wise fellow, he also is suffering from terminal cancer, making him an even more sympathetic victim of Mildred's billboard attack. Clouding the issue even more is Mildred's own guilty conscience over her daughter's death. She and Angela said terrible things to each other on the day Angela died. Mildred coincidentally said something to Angela that day that would haunt her and her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges of “Manchester by the Sea”) forever.
Among those indirectly affected by the war between Mildred and the police, are Red Welby (played by Caleb Landry Jones of “Get Out”) who sells Mildred the advertising space on the billboards, Denise (Amanda Warren of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”) Mildred's co-worker arrested by officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell of “The Way Way Back”) as a way of getting back at Mildred, and her son, who is caught in the middle of this mess. Peter Dinklage (“The Station Agent”) also appears as a man attracted to Mildred, who more or less spurns him. There is also a dentist who thinks you use a drill to pull a tooth, and the very odd comic relief character, Penelope (Samara Weaving) the teenaged girlfriend of Mildred's ex husband.
Dixon is perhaps the strangest character in this movie, a seemingly dim-witted, alcoholic bigot of a policeman who conducts himself in an overtly illegal manner. He rousts and beats up people based on their skin color and sexual preference. He also shows up for work drunk and wastes most of the day slouched at his desk feeling sorry for himself and being angry at the world.
Chief Willoughby believes that Dixon has the makings of a detective, if he can get past all those mental problems, and that is a very big if. Somehow, Dixon isn't fired, even after throwing an innocent man out of a second story window. He isn't fired until a new police chief takes over the department, Abercrombie (Clarke Peters of “John Wick”) who looks like he stepped into this movie from some other police movie altogether. Chief Abercrombie brings a bit of sanity to an insane situation. Later Dixon undergoes a significant character change, because of dubious motivations.
As if that isn't enough drama, someone sets fire to the billboards, a stranger walks into Mildred's store and seems to threaten her and all but admits to raping her daughter, a fellow commits suicide despite seemingly spending more time than he has left writing suicide notes and letters to a bunch of people in town, then there's a fight in a bar in which Dixon is seriously injured. The police station is fire bombed and Dixon is badly burned. Mildred's ex-husband, Charlie Hayes (John Hawkes of “Everest”) viciously attacks Mildred. Robbie holds a knife to Charlie's throat to get him to turn loose of Mildred.
In yet another astonishing coincidence, Chief Willoughby tells Mildred that some unsolvable cases are eventually solved through dumb luck, like someone hearing another person confess to the crime. Dixon, drunk as usual, later overhears the same guy (played by Brendan Sexton III of “Seven Psychopaths”) who threatened Mildred, admit, in a public place, to a crime exactly like the unsolved murder of Mildred's daughter. What are the odds?
You would expect a few answers to the questions raised in the film, like who killed Angela Hayes? Did Angela Hayes ask her father, Charlie, shortly before her death, to allow her to live with him because she couldn't stand living with Mildred? What made Dixon hate everyone so much? Where did Abercrombie come from and how did he get to be the police chief without anyone at the police station finding out in advance? Who is this guy who tells stories about raping women and who also threatened Mildred? What's his story? Why did he threaten Mildred and what is he doing there, over 900 miles from where he lives?
There is a lot going on in this movie. It is as if the writer-director (Martin McDonagh of “In Bruges”) is a juggler who is unable to handle all that stuff he has launched simultaneously into the air. Some of it is just left hanging in midair at the end. There are those who say this particular juggling act works, but I am not one of them. To me, this is a disappointing movie, mostly rescued by a cast of very talented actors. This film rates a B.
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