Some actors will phone it in if they’re just there to pay the bills. You might run into these kind of performances now and again where you see someone ordinarily quite good at the craft giving lip service to some kind of action film or franchise comedy piece and not really caring. Then you have an actor of the highest calibre, who finds her/himself in something meaty, something truly substantial, and you get to experience the joy that is sitting back and watching greatness unfurl in front of you.
Frances McDormand is that actor, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is that film. The third film from writer-director McDonaugh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) paints a grim and darkly comic portrait of small town America, and is at the same time a sombre mediation on grief, on the very nature of vengeance, on mortality, and the desperate places humans will go to once the point of no return has been reached. It’s in this film that McDormand gets to be just as good as she’s ever been – which is saying something considering this is the woman who was in Fargo, Wonder Boys and Almost Famous. She plays a woman who is more human embodiment of the wrath of a wronged god, sheer, determined at odds with a world which has robbed her of so much. You can see the wheels turning inside her; and there is so much to read in her face — so much pain and frustration… so much anger under the surface.
There’s not so much showboating in her performance; hers is a portrayal of steely-eyed, slow-simmering determination. It’s one of the year’s – if not many year’s – best performances. Also in attendance, giving some high-end work are Woody Harrelson as the beleaguered and ill police chief, and Sam Rockwell, seemingly in a world of his own, as the deputy with his own set of values, methods and ways of thought.
Martin McDonagh created in In Bruges one of the best, more original comedies of the past 20 years; an instantly quotable travelogue, neatly wrapped in the blackest of black comedies. In that one, he interposed his characters’ cornucopia of emotional states with sudden bursts of shocking bloodshed, and made it all so deeply affecting and memorable. Three Billboards employs similar tactics but exists on a whole other level. McDonagh’s slice of small town Americana is one with the expected coterie of eccentric characterisations, but his protagonists are constructed as being brilliantly multi-dimensional. McDormand’s Mildred is not just a pissed off, grief stricken mother on a mission – she has moments of tremendous insight (blood is accidentally coughed on her face, and she reacts with the purest form of sympathy; another scene has her contemplating the idea of reincarnation with a local deer; it’s beautifully realised); so too with Harrelson and Rockwell, and the forever impressive Peter Dinklage in a small and beautifully reliased cameo as a love-struck car salesman, of all things.
What’s most impressive about this film is its unapologetic moral vacancy. It doesn’t stand to offer judgment on its characters’ actions, merely present them, in what ends up as a stunning portrayal of what happens when in the absence of a moral centre, or justice in the world, characters can be left to their own devices, with devastating consequences.