I don’t think I’m alone in finding it difficult to describe this film, or the experience of watching it. Meandering, half-realized and often unconvincing, it also has a kind of feckless charm that blindsides you. Those familiar with director-writer Martin McDonagh’s previous work would be familiar with the blindside part. In Bruges, for instance, flapped around all over the place, yet ultimately satisfied because the two lead characters, played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason, both professional hit men, turned out to be people we actually cared about. It was a bumpy ride, but worth it.
This film is even messier, with many more characters inflicting poorly motivated misery on each other, and, to make it even worse, you don’t have thrilling and majestic Bruges to look at. Just some poor-trash town choking on its own dust.
The spine of the story is simple. A struggling, divorced woman is outraged that no arrests have been made in the rape-murder of her teenage daughter after seven months. She scrapes together enough money to rent three billboards outside the town that condemn the popular police chief, played by Woody Harrelson, for not doing his job. The townspeople are outraged by this, especially since the chief is dying of cancer.
The meandering plot could have worked. Just seeing a list of the major characters is tantalizing: Mildred, the mother (Frances McDormand); Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson); Anne Willoughby, the chief’s wife (Abbie Cornish); Jason Dixon, the chief’s deputy (Sam Rockwell); Robbie, Mildred’s teenage son (Lucas Hedges); Momma Dixon, Jason’s mother (Sandy Martin, who is excellent), Red, the manager of the advertising company that rents the billboards (Caleb Landry Jones); Charlie, Mildred’s ex-husband (John Hawkes); Charlie’s nineteen-year old girlfriend (Samara Weaving); James, a dwarf (Peter Dinklage); and an unnamed violent man passing through town (Christopher Berry).
One typical McDonagh technique is the sudden, often funny outburst of melodramatic action that may, or may not, have anything to do with the main story. We see that here in what Mildred does when a group of teenagers throw a milk carton at her truck. Or what Jason does when he hears of Chief Willoughby’s death. Subtlety is gleefully sacrificed for bracing shock.
On the plus side, this keeps you watching, especially with a group of actors as talented as this. Surprisingly, McDormand, arguably the most talented of the bunch, seems uncharacteristically hesitant. But Mildred is such a volatile character, I’m not sure that even McDonagh knows who she is. Her violence is not simply self-defeating, it shows a lack of human empathy that undercuts any sympathy we could have for her. It’s kind of exhausting, and makes the story seems repetitious and padded. Every scene could take the story into an entirely new direction. In one case, that might not have been a bad thing. One of the best-staged and written scenes is when Mildred’s ex-husband, Charlie, and his young girlfriend stop by Mildred’s house after breakfast. For once, the violence seems a bursting forth from long-simmering, unresolved issues. In fact, I was prepared to become involved in that back-story, and wanted more, especially since Hawkes and McDormand gave off sparks together.
Instead, the meandering story is poorly resolved. Mildred’s conversion into some kind of feminist avenger is totally unconvincing. Additionally, Jason’s part in her transformation also seems artificial, in spite of the very fine work by Rockwell. It could be that McDonagh meant the film to be a kind of circuitous love story, one that folds back to a beginning that had given absolutely no clue that it was about that, but which seems organic in retrospect. It was a technique that worked fine in Fight Club, for one instance. But I think I’m giving McDonagh too much credit here. At this point, his talent seems to be for lining up the acts for a really good circus, but not for being its ringmaster.