“I want Frances McDormund to be real,” I blurted out after seeing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, a dark character drama centering on the tense standoff between a grieving mother (McDormund) and her local police department in the aftermath of her daughter’s rape and murder. Immediately after making my wish, I reached the same conclusion you did when you got to the end of that previous sentence, and I had to backtrack. “Wait. I mean, I don’t want her to be real, no mother should have to go through that, and obviously I’m glad that wasn’t a documented rape-murder-arson case outside Ebbing, although there are also plenty of those—”
Here, mercifully, my companion stopped me. “Babe, I get it. She was a total badass.”
And what a badass. McDormund plays Mildred as a nails-hard prairie mother of the old school—in another era, she would have looked at ease castrating a dozen hogs before cooking enough breakfast to feed a logging camp. Unfortunately, Mildred is stuck living in 2017, selling knickknacks to tourists whilst wearing a dumpy jumpsuit. It’s as if William Wallace, transplanted, were forced to don a Taco Bell polo. A bit of ancient brutality has followed Mildred to modern times, however; her daughter’s unsolved murder dogs her with vicious, unflagging persistence. Mildred is going to make sure the local police feel its bite. Draining her resources, she pays for three vivid red billboards, strung along the road like a dark Burma-Shave sign and addressed very personally to the local police: ‘Raped while dying. And still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?’ Seeing the signs, her son yelps “Jesus Christ, mom!” But Mildred is just getting started. Her quest for justice brings her into loggerheads with the dying Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his dimmer, meaner deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell, the astonishing Swiss Army actor who has never quite become a household name, perhaps because he dissolves so completely into each role that most people can only remember him as “that guy, you know”, with much finger-snapping and “oooh, it’s on the tip of my tongue”ing and references to his other movies). McDormund, Harrelson and Rockwell go into the rock tumbler of the plot together, and Martin McDonagh’s taut, merciless script brings each character’s softest parts up against each other’s roughest edges, to results as brilliant as they are funny—the movie never goes for the easy bloodbath, preferring instead to show people restrained by slightly glitchy moral codes. In one of the finest scenes, Mildred decides to commit arson, but conscientiously rings the phone inside the building three times—just to make sure everyone inside is rousted before the first Molotov cocktail is thrown. It’s a kind, complex gesture, that pays off in complex ways, and I can’t wait to revisit the scene and pick up the microexpressions I missed the first time around. Mildred might not be real, but Frances McDormund is, and that, in 2017, is as close as we get to a miracle.