Thursday, January 4, 2018


Mildred taunts local police by renting some billboards that challenge them to solve the case of her daughter who was raped and burned alive. The cops push back with community support. The rent is expensive and the pressure to take the billboards down is mounting. Something's got to pop. Or does it?

A hefty talent lineup is hauled up to make this work. Frances McDormand leads with a bludgeoning tongue and the kind of lead-eyed stare when on the attack as sharks do. Without this fierce energy at the centre this film it would collapse. The part was written for her (that's not hyperbole, it really was). Supported by the likes of Woody Harrelson and his down home gravitas, and Sam Rockwell's violent and flailing hick cop Dixon might provide all we need but the good parts and performances are poured out like diner coffee.

And there is a real underlying sadness of the setting and the good-old-boy atrocity with its unavenged silence in the community. When Dixon says to his mother that the south "isn't like that" anymore it's a resignation that he can no longer freely strut and punch that way that old cops could. The lush surrounding landscape and picturesque town begin to feel like camouflage netting.

But this is a Martin McDonagh film and if you've seen others or at least the trailer to this one you should be expecting a lot of humour. Well, just as in the trailers for the others there's a lot of fun but it's never all laughs. In Bruges is one of my favourite films of the last ten years for its blend of tailspin humour and grimness and magnetic performances. That film felt overlong, however, and to my mind it was due to leaving its central gravity as a reveal rather than allow it to work beside the levity so that when the odd fourth act begins it feels like a job we had put off. This time there's no mistaking the atrocity nor its seriousness. Its constant presence in Billboards lets the humour (and there is a lot of it) weave with the crime and sense of stasis so that if there is to be resolution it must be made of all those threads. It does, it's still longer than it should be, but it works.

It works because McDonagh can write up a storm of hilariously point-missing characters, sharp wit that would seem so if spoken off screen, and constant engagement with characters. And a kind of soft-edged twist: at one point I noted some fatigue with the violence that was mounting and felt like I was rewarded for my concern when the violence that did ensue had a hitherto unaired motivation. It felt like relief.

Another scene features a deer that other filmmakers might allow in as a kind of reincarnation moment. Mildred dispels all such notions with another slashing tirade that turns poignant on a dime as character and audience alike recall the single scene that features daughter Angela. It isn't maudlin in the least. In this story of painful grief and inert justice the scene sobers rather than inflames or saddens. Like the conclusion and the Townes Van Zandt song that plays it out we recall the lack of control that grief and the most energetic fury cannot reverse. McDonagh's best yet.

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