Arts

Frances McDormand deserves an Oscar for Martin McDonagh's superb Three Billboards

Frances McDormand delivers a commanding performance as a grieving mother demanding justice for her dead daughter in Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. David Roy investigates...

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, who takes on the police after they fail to find her daughter's killer

THREE Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri arrives in cinemas this week atop a wave of Golden Globes success, with the always excellent Frances McDormand collecting best actress, the equally always excellent Sam Rockwell taking home best supporting actor, writer-director Martin McDonagh claiming best screenplay and the movie itself being named best drama film.

That haul is a fair summation of this darkly funny drama's strengths: McDormand delivers a powerhouse lead performance as a tough, grief-hardened mother on the warpath, while Rockwell's turn as a dumb, drink-addled racist with a badge is also first rate.

Of course, this being a Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) movie, there's much more to the characters than meets the eye in his latest compelling, enjoyably unpredictable film.

In particular, Rockwell's grossly incompetent white trash cop gets to go on a bit of a 'journey', metamorphosing from pitiful comic relief in the film's first half to something much more complex and interesting in its latter stages.

Such a transformation would ring hollow in the hands of a lesser writer, but McDonagh's script manages to sell Rockwell's somewhat redemptive rebirth convincingly while probing what makes people act the way they do, how even the worst seemingly endemic character flaws can be over-ridden in the right – or indeed, 'wrong'– circumstances and why basic human decency and respect can be among the most powerful forces for change.

You'll get the most from Three Billboards the less you know about it, as this is a film which delights in wrong-footing viewers just as they think they've got a handle on where things are going.

The set-up is simple: fearing that the investigation into her daughter's horrifically violent death has gone cold following several months of police inactivity, Mildred Hayes (McDormand) decides to shake things up by renting a trio of advertising hoardings on the edge of town.

On them are pasted a series of provocative slogans which add up to one clear message to Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his men: 'Why haven't you caught the killer?'

Harrelson is also in first class form as this small-town lawman, who actually has been trying to solve the case despite a complete lack of witnesses, leads or computerised matches for the killer's DNA collected at the scene and the distraction of some rather pressing personal issues.

However, with her daughter's awful demise having taken a serious toll on her family unit – teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and recently estranged husband Charlie (John Hawkes) – Mildred is not accepting any excuses.

Stoney-faced and fuelled by righteous anger, she opines how, if it were up to her, she'd collect samples from every male newborn to form a comprehensive DNA database to be referenced in the event of such apparently 'unsolvable' crimes.

"As soon as he done something wrong, I'd cross-reference it, make 100 per cent certain it was a correct match, then kill him," she deadpans.

"Yeah, well there's definitely civil rights laws prevents that," muses Willoughby, whose butting of heads with this defiant mother is defused in one brilliantly staged shock moment which provides a glimpse of the maternal tenderness that's now buried deep beneath Mildred's battering ram-esque manner.

As we watch McDormand shrugging off cop complaints, taking teenage bullies to physical task, verbally haranguing sensationalistic TV news crews and generally refusing to give a good goddamn about what anyone else has to say on the matter, her arresting performance recalls Lily Tomlin's similarly steely, Golden Globe-nominated turn in Paul Weitz's superb 2015 comedy drama, Grandma.

Tomlin should also have received, at the very least, an Oscar-nod for that tour de force: hopefully, McDormand will now be in the running to collect her first Academy Award since her 1994 win for the Coen brothers classic, Fargo.

There are definitely shades of the Coens in Three Billboards' pitch-black brew of serious drama laced with an abundance of laugh-out-loud moments so near the knuckle that audiences are at constant risk of dismemberment.

An early contender for film of the year, no question: please do believe the hype.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (15, 115 mins) Drama/Comedy/Thriller/Romance. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Sandy Martin.

Director: Martin McDonagh

RATING: FOUR STARS

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