Written by Amber Jackson
After seven Oscar nominations, nine BAFTA nominations (yes, nine!) and four Golden Globe victories, why is Martin McDonagh’s film grossing so much attention? Because this film is dark. It homes in on themes such as coping with loss, long-term illness, racism and criminal injustice – all within a sleepy Southern town that looks as though it’s been forgotten by the rest of America. But for a film firmly etched with grief, it’s incredibly funny and maybe that’s the selling point. So, does this mean that a tragedy absorbed with this much hilarity is the only way in which society can digest and make sense of a bleak world? Is this level of human brutality too real for audiences?
Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a protagonist who is bold, wounded and determined in the wake of her daughter’s unsolved murder case. Tarnished by anger and resentment, Mildred pays for three billboards to be painted with a controversial message against the chief of police, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). A simple premise that invites incredibly complicated responses that all rally against Hayes, who is determined to not let anyone forget what happened to her daughter and justice that she lacks. Once you strip the layers of this film down, you are able to see that the film simply situates a woman who craves knowledge on what happened to her daughter. She is driven by many reasons: fear guilt, but mostly regret, as is revealed throughout the viewing of this deeply unsettling film.
The film quickly becomes a battle ground for unforgiving verbal – and later physical – violence that is darkly comical. Each character is complex and unforgiving and the Western style of the film exaggerates this, as well as providing a unique and conflicted insight into the reality of the US police force. Complimented by Carter Burwell’s countrified score, the atmosphere of each scene is intensified as we are pulled into this wild and hate-fueled vendetta. Working alongside this, the cinematography (director of photography Ben Davis) pulls the audience into a rivalry with melancholy and mockery. The initial response to the billboards is displayed through the characters, before revealing them builds up the suspense and shock of how the spectacle of three violent phrases shake the foundations of the tiny town.
When McDormand spoke at the Golden Globes in early January, after winning a well-deserved award for her role in this film, she spoke on how she was proud to be around to witness “a tectonic shift in our industry’s power structure” – her industry being the world of film and media. The chaos occurring across the world within film now only makes this film more poignant, as actors are being reminded of their original aim: to tell stories. This cathartic recognition is causing creators to break out of their creative comfort zones and instead be raw, brutal and incredibly unhinged. I feel as though this film represents just that. The characters are incredibly flawed, but as the story progresses, you are suddenly hit with the realization that they are being presented in a way that makes them likeable.
I use the term ‘likeable’ loosely, however, because there has been some critical backlash on how the film deals with racism and rightly so. Perhaps this ties in with the recurring theme of a bleak and unjust America, or maybe it’s to prove a point that flawed characters can develop. Because redemption here isn’t at all straightforward. The ending of the film is poignant in this way, as it represents that devastating events can’t be fixed or changed. But in accepting that they have happened, you can say ‘never again’ and prevent bad things from happening in the future. That’s what I believe the characters of Mildred and Dixon represent, and this is a message that is definitely reflected within the film world at the moment – that enough is enough.
This film is well-worth seeing because it invites the audience to ask these questions, accompanied by beautiful acting and an incredibly powerful story. So long as you don’t mind very frequent foul language! It will be interesting to see how the Oscars play out.
Trigger warning: excessive swearing, suicide, racism, discussions on rape/abuse.