Frances McDormand is a force. It’s something in the actress’s voice, her eyes, her sense of humor and her quiet charisma. Look at her, engage with her character, and you are off on a trip. That’s certainly true for her role in Three Billboards Outside Edding, Missouri, a weird, wild, very good movie written and directed by Martin McDonagh.
It has always been hard to look away from McDormand, 60 years old and working as hard as ever. Of course not all of her films were good. Just look at last year’s Hail, Caesar!, one of George Clooney’s growing number of miserable misfires. But even in bad movies she usually shines. And when a film is actually good to begin with — Mississippi Burning, Fargo — she has the capacity to make it better yet.
In Three Billboards she plays Mildred Haynes, a mother raging with grief after her teenage daughter has been raped and killed. We quickly learn that a year has gone by since the murder, and no one has been arrested. Mildred makes sure we and everyone in Ebbing knows this. She rents the space on three decrepit billboards just out of town. Her fury lingers in the words she puts on there: ‘Raped while dying / And still no arrests / How come, Chief Willoughby?’
Clearly Mildred blames Willoughby for the lack of progress of the case. This ineffective cop is played well by Woody Harrelson — for once he plays a decent man just trying to do his best. But Willoughby is ill and has to deal with a racist, seemingly brain-dead local police officer named Dixon. Sam Rockwell portrays this character so well that we, oddly, feel some sort of sympathy for his stupidity and bigotry. I’ll leave aside here whether Dixon redeems himself. Regardless, Rockwell deserves nominations for his powerful work here.
Everyone is good, actually, in Three Billboards. The dead daughter, Angela, who appears in flashbacks, is played with verve by Kathryn Newton. She was an angry teenager. Before her deadly trip mother and daughter had a bad argument. Mildred wouldn’t let Angela use the car. Fine, cried Angela as she stormed out. Her last words to her exasperated mother were, at the moment and in retrospect, bone-chilling: “I hope I get raped on the way.” Teenagers say stupid stuff; when those stupid words are their last, the torment for a parent is unbearable.
The unspoken guilt of Mildred drives the smart, spare screenplay. When Chief Willoughby tries to explain there is little more he can do to find the killer, having drawn blood from local suspects and trying to match DNA, she snaps: “Pull blood from every man in the country.” This is a mother willing to do anything — anything — to find vengeance and justice. She may not bring back Angela, but she will hunt down the murderer and seek some sort of peace.
Throughout the film we barely really see Mildred’s pain, but it is hidden in nearly every line she utters. Meanwhile, Three Billboards is also a dark comedy, just as Fargo was. I think that’s mostly McDormand’s doing. She is inherently witty and she will find whatever there might be to laugh about even in the darkest subject matter — even the loss of a child.
The script is tailor-made for McDormand. In fact, McDonagh has said he wrote it with the actress in mind. Rare is the serious, ambitious film written completely from a female perspective. Mildred is the sun of this film. Every other character revolves around her, including her son played by the young actor Lucas Edges, who is as compelling here as he was in Manchester by the Sea.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is hardly a catchy film title. It sounds more like a painting. Still, the choice makes sense. The billboards are key supporting characters, geographically and symbolically. The story barely leaves the small town of Ebbing. And the movie itself is a compact work of art, just under two hours long, leaving you to ponder what you might do in the horrific scenario painted here.
To me, a lover of soccer, McDormand shares a quality with the greatest futbol players. Guys like the late Johan Cruijff and Lionel Messi, the world’s current best, elevate every game they are in. Their talent and drive is infectious; everyone around them improves. So it is with Frances McDormand in all of her films, and particularly in this magnificent new movie.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens in Los Angeles and New York on November 10, and nationwide on December 1. It is rated R.