Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;
for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’
I loved filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s crime caper In Bruges in which the crooks turn the name of the great Indian leader Gandhi into a verb. Now the writer/director inserts his wry humor into a far darker tale of grief, anger, and desire for vengeance. And it stars two actors at the top of their form, Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson, making this a real treat for film lovers!
Mildred Hayes (McDormand), seven months after her teenage daughter Angela was raped and murdered, is still broken-hearted because no trace of the killer other than his DNA has been found. Convinced that local chief of police Bill Willoughby (Harrelson) is doing nothing, she marches into the grungy office of the local advertising agency and plunks down several thousand dollars to rent three decrepit billboards at the edge of town.
This act certainly grabs the attention of everybody. The upset Chief tries to reason with her, even informing her that he is dealing with pancreatic cancer, but she accepts no excuses. The townsfolk, though sympathizing with her loss, turn against her because of their esteem for Willoughby, and his two deputies, of course, side with their boss. One of them Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is a thug with a badge, known for having beaten a black man. Her priest pays a visit to try to talk her out of her publicity campaign, but she orders him out of her house, much to the consternation of her teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). She even gets so mad at her dentist, who defends his friend Willoughby, that she grabs his drill and pokes a hole in his thumbnail. This is a woman not to be messed with! Mildred believes that a patriarchal world that places little value on the life of a young woman must be fought tooth and nail.
The strong performances of the two stars are matched by all the above supporting cast, plus several others: Caleb Landry Jones as the young manager of the Ebbing advertising agency; Peter Dinklage as a local pool shark and who has a hankering for Mildred. (Ever since I first saw him in the wonderful Station Agent, I have admired the work of this tiny actor.) There also is Clarke Peters as Officer Abercrombie, who comes to town to take charge of the police department when affairs go awry. He is black, so we know Dixon is not pleased.
The film diverts from the path of the usual vengeance-driven film in a couple of ways, though this seems at first unlikely. Late one night, Mildred’s angry impatience leads her to torch the police station, located across the street from the ad agency. Where will this in a roundabout way this results in an unexpected change in the nasty deputy, which in turn produces an unusual alliance and a quest or mission that is left hanging after the film. Included in all of this is Dixon’s discovery of the identity of the possible killer, which leads us to expect… but then…
There is also a moving letter that Chief Willoughby leaves behind as a positive legacy, especially for his loathsome deputy.
I love it when the filmmaker takes us into unexpected territory, and then leaves us pondering the future of the characters. This is not a film for those who like everything at the end tied up in a neat package. Like life, it is filled with unexpected twists and disappointments and longings that sometimes are not satisfied. Mildred might long for closure, and we assume she will find it, but not in the way of the usual, formulaic tale of vengeance so popular through the years. Good news.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the January 2018 issue of Visual Parables.