A Mother’s Burning Fury in “Three Billboards”


A late take on “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in a pre-Oscars review series.



In Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Frances McDormand perfects the exquisitely subtle acrobatics of rage as Mildred Hayes, from the way she crunches on her nails as she surveys the billboards that will announce her crusade against the ineffectual police department, to the moment she wrests a fire extinguisher out of her son’s hands and lets loose the rawest, most gravelly scream I’ve ever heard. With the help of the quietly bold Red Welby, Ebbing’s advertising salesman, Mildred erects three billboards that protest a lack of investment in her daughter Angela’s as yet unsolved rape and murder, and prod, “Raped while dying” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Her attack on Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s avuncular police chief, dying of cancer and beloved to the community, provokes the ire of the entire town, not least that of Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), his sluggish protegé. Rockwell amuses and horrifies as a hiccuping fool who is known for torturing a black man in custody, lives with his flagrantly racist mother, and waddles around practicing a heinous cruelty that we later learn is mostly a crutch he gropes for in his ignorance.

McDonagh sprinkles in comedic wild-cards amidst the abysmal circumstances of Mildred’s actions, but a bit too recklessly. Pamela (Kerry Condon), Welby’s secretary, as well as Penelope (Samara Weaving), Mildred’s ex-husband’s young girlfriend, who confuses polo and polio, are infuriatingly ditzy outlines of characters. The dialogue is a little overwrought, and some interactions seem theatrically hostile. One worker putting up the billboards responds to an aghast Willoughby early in the film, before the drama even unravels, “Then we can have a conversation about the motherfuckin’ environment. How bout that?” It seems unlikely that the billboards, and not the crime itself, would suddenly put the entire town on edge. But at least McDonagh’s comic flourishes don’t undermine Mildred’s grief, which he thankfully doesn’t dramatize garishly. In one poignant moment, Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) tells her that Angela begged to move in with him shortly before her death, and if she had, maybe she would still be here today. Mildred croaks in disbelief, so immediately and instinctively that you can see the pain spasm in her chest.

McDonagh explores strange crossovers between the grotesque and the comic: Dixon plots a murder while his mother dozes off and his pet turtle crawls into her lap. Mildred sets the police station on fire with a characteristically oblivious Dixon inside, before he escapes, his flesh aflame. The film’s gory violence might seem gratuitous, but McDormand makes Mildred’s anger at an unfeeling universe so toxic that it can only be actualized as impulsively and fiercely as it is. Indifferent to how her actions are humiliating her son, when she scrambles out of her car to knee his leering classmates in the crotch, it’s clear and heartbreaking how helpless and blind she is in her grief. She’s made viciously cruel by pain, her mouth permanently puckered and ready to spit fire. At one point she drills into the nail of a dentist who defends Willoughby. But Mildred isn’t invulnerable, and has hardened over a lifetime, as her ex-husband is also an “ex-cop, ex-wife-beater.” She sweet-talks a deer in the lambent twilight, surprising herself with a tenderness she hasn’t been able to nurture for so long that she breaks down. In showing how loss has so thoroughly warped Mildred, the film is a lesson in how some pain is irredeemable, especially in this sleepy town with nothing to distract you from your own thoughts, where Dixon so naturally itches for confrontation. No matter how deranged you think she is by the end of the film, you can easily get swept along by her tidal and disturbingly triumphant fury. The searing, shocking image of Angela’s charred body, briefly visible when Willoughby casually rifles through his papers, glanced at but not glossed over by the camera, makes sure we know that Mildred’s grief must be darker than anyone can know.


Claire Park (claire_park@college.harvard.edu) is hoping for Frances McDormand’s Oscar win, and is still loyal, and infuriatingly so, her friends will say, to “Call Me by Your Name.”