I’m on quite a good run of films recently. I wasn’t planning to write another mini-review so quickly after the last one for All The Money In The World but my trip to The Pictures yesterday almost made me feel it was my patrotic duty to do so. Please be aware, if you’re so minded to avoid spoilers for this film as I was, then you might not want to read too much.
I’d only seen one advertisement for 3 Billboards and that was many months ago. However I knew I was going to enjoy it. It seemed to be just my thing, a very ernest and perhaps unexciting film with a low profile story to tell but a properly acted one that relies on a story rather than all the action and explosions that so often are used to mask the shortcomings in modern films. It was all that and more and I honestly wasn’t expecting or prepared for a film of this statue and quality.
It tells what I thought might well be a true story but one that apparently isn’t, at least not precisely so. An older middle-aged lady whose daughter was raped and murdered 7 months ago in a small township in a southern state of the USA. Sadly all this time later, there have been no arrests made and the lady believes that too little effort is being placed into catching the perpetrator and too much effort has been expelled in a case of police brutality of a black individual in police custody.
Seemingly at a dead and desperate end, the lady decides the only way forward is to pay for 3 advertisings hoardings to name and shame the police chief of the town into doing something so that she can seek a measure of justice for her dead daughter.
The film has some wonderful actors in it. Frances McDormand is the main player as the grieving mother Mildred, if you are anything like me will still well remember her from her Oscar winning role in Fargo all the way back in the last millenium. Woody Harrelson stars as the police chief, Sam Rockwell as the rather obnoxious police officer and Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage as the love-struck car-salesman who fancies the pants off the increasingly irate Mildred.
There are so many things that I enjoyed about 3 Billboards and it is hard to work out which element is the most impressive. The story just works so well and the best of it for me is that it doesn’t follow any mainstream story-telling motions. Whether the story flows naturally or meanders might well depend on your point of view but it definitely has a few surprises and yet by the very end of the film, Mildred is absolutely no closer to obtaining justice.
For this to be a great film despite the apparent total lack of progress in the narrative is all down to the writer and director, actors and characters. All of the characters are floored, some very much so, most understandably so. We as an audience aren’t intended to root for someone or to see character development in a somewhat patronising way as can be the case with Hollywood films. The good don’t win and the bad don’t particularly lose, it is just reflective of life as many of us know it.
There are several characters that in any other film, we would expect to develop in certain ways. The wife-beater husband, the kind-hearted small person, the black police boss in a racist environment, the dead daughter in flashback, the main character Mildred: none of them behave or play out, or are treated “appropriately”, in accordance with their headline, first-impression characterisations.
As an example, the daughter is not depicted as a sympathetic character for the audience to side with. Instead she is rather horrible and obscene to her equally less than perfect mother. When they row for the last time and the daughter decides to walk to a party when she isn’t allowed the car and shouts “Good, I hope I get raped” with Mildred screaming “I hope you get raped too” we are instead invited empathise with them as people in the situation they find themselves in irrespective of their trials, rewards or come-uppance they may get in the story.
The racist and all round hateful and bigoted police office Dixon doesn’t particularly get redemption; yes he has a slightly change of direction but he remains complex and conflicted but his situation unfolds somewhat, in a way that’s probably not clear to him or anyone else.
Mildred herself is what i would say is a earnest, hard working and abused wife. The fact that she is pining for justice doesn’t take away her flaws. Attacking the dentist, being outright aggressive to her children and even the police-chief even though she knows he is dying of cancer. Her act of wanton terrorism by setting fire to the police station and almost killing (deservedly I must say) Dixon because of her wrong-held belief that he set fire to her signs was not the act of most people whose family member gets murdered. Yes Dixon is dispicable (if you’ve seen the film you’ll remember the spectacular but horrific scene of violence he plays out in broad daylight) but he didn’t do that bad crime and yet he gets punished for it.
Though Mildred may be the main character of the film, for me the heart of it is really the Sheriff who is played by Woody Harrelson. It would be all to easy to assume he is some useless red-neck police officer but nothing could be further from the truth. Offended as he is by the signs, he shows great sympathy to Mildred. He is a wonderful family man suffering from terminal cancer and he is ashamed that he hasn’t been able to solve the crime due to a total lack of witnesses, evidence or any DNA from the perpetrators. His deep humanity and innate decency impacts on everyone in the town and his determination not to be a burden and for his wife and family to remember him as he was, leaves him to commit suicide midway through the film.
It was a deeply affecting moment to everyone in the audience who watched it with me, doubly so when it is revealed that he wrote letters to Mildred imploring her not to give up and giving her $5,000 to fund the bilboards for a further month. And another to Dixon, perhaps the only person in the world who sees anything in the deeply flawed younger police officer and which inspires the man if not to do a totally impossible character redemption, at least to take a look at himself and do the best at what little life has given him.
I’m pretty certain Frances McDormand will win an Oscar for this film and for me the only serious competition for best picture will be the film I am seeing next, Darkest Hour. However, Oscars don’t always go to those that deserve them.
I’ve seen quite a bit of comment on the internet unhappy at both the treatment of the police here and also with the lack of ‘punishment’ within the film itself for Dixon who it must be said quite shocked me with one event. I’d like to think this is a result of the British writer and director Martin McDonagh and the fact it was made by Film 4. It is this non-judgemental moral ambiguity combined with well written characters and the actors who portrayed them that make this film what it is. If you want an ‘out for justice’ type film where you know how all the building blocks will fall then there are plenty of others to choose from.
I hope you’ll like this film as much as I did and if you laugh out loud when everyone else is quiet and at seemingly inappropriate moments then don’t worry it is also a deeply dark comedy too.
Good quotes from the movie:
Sheriff Willoughby: I’d do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don’t match no one who’s ever been arrested, and when the DNA don’t match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn’t a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well… right now there ain’t too much more we could do.
Mildred Hayes: You could pull blood from every man and boy in this town over the age of 8.
Willoughby: There’s civil rights laws prevents that, Mrs. Hayes, and what if he was just passing through town?
Mildred Hayes: Pull blood from every man in the country.
Willoughby: And what if he was just passing through the country?
Mildred Hayes: If it was me, I’d start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.
Willoughby: Yeah well, there’s definitely civil rights laws that prevents that.
Mildred Hayes: So how’s it all going in the nigger- torturing business, Dixon?
Dixon: It’s ‘Persons of color’-torturing business, these days, if you want to know. And I didn’t torture nobody
Mildred Hayes: Hey fuckhead!
Desk Sergeant: Don’t say what, Dixon. When she comes in calling you a “fuckhead.”
Dixon: You see, I hate white people too.