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28th December
written by Mad Cow


Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references

Mad Cow’s Rating: three cowbells

There seem to be more movies that take place in very small towns this year, towns in which everyone literally knows everyone and also where they live. Lucky was one and so was Wind River. This is another. It changes things a lot because movies like these are open to lots of back story by the people who know you now and knew you when. The film, written and directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), is a perfect vehicle for Frances McDormand, who plays Mildred Hayes. Mildred rents the billboards with words that challenge the chief of police William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to explain why the police haven’t caught, after a year, her daughter’s rapist and murderer. She is determined, fierce, and takes no prisoners.

Frances McDormand

Woody Harrelson & Frances McDormand

This could have been a light simple story, with, say, Mildred and Willoughby partnering to find the killer, or each on his or her own, sleuthing and falling over each other in the process, but it is far more complex than that. It’s personal. Mildred’s cantankerous personality has been known to all for a long time and Willoughby’s leadership admired, so the expected “sides” are somewhat reversed. Willoughby explains that he can’t just take DNA samples from every man in the county and Mildred wants to know why not.

Meanwhile Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, Lady Bird, Manchester by the Sea, Moonrise Kingdom) has to put up with the notoriety manifested in classmates’ behavior, and her ex-husband (John Hawkes) is dating a rather stupid but affable teenage girl, Penelope (Samara Weaving). Many people get into the mix, including the guy who leased the billboards, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones, X-Men First Class, American Made, Get Out). Mildred levels stark revenge at an opposing citizen who happens to be a dentist (Jerry Winsett). She is also hounded by a TV reporter (Malaya Rivera Drew).

Not to mention the second-in-command at the police department, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, The Way Back, Seven Psychopaths). Dixon is mean and so is his mother (Sandy Martin), with whom he lives. They drink a lot and share mean thoughts and mean plans. She encourages his violence. He seems to be cast as the comedic force in the movie.

Sam Rockwell

This is supposed to be a dark comedy but the “funny” elements fall slightly flat. I think the problems is in the character of Dixon. At times he seems just mean and other times just drunk. We know he is racist by reputation. He often comes across as the bumbling ignorant assistant. His part would have played better in a sheriff’s office, instead of a police department with a bunch of other officers and if he fell firmly in the character of bumbler. His deeds are heavy-handed as are Mildred’s and we are meant to see the contrast there. McDonagh’s film In Bruges, was fairly brutal but wildly, stomach-hurting, hilarious. This movie is closer to brutal. Also, McDonagh stuck in a bit in which James (Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones, The Station Agent), a little person, does Mildred a big favor in exchange for a date together. Even though it’s politically correct, this bit seems insulting to Dinklage. It’s just weird.

If anything is to be taken from this movie, it’s perhaps that life is complicated and people’s motives aren’t all that clear-cut. The film is worth seeing with its flaws. It does make one think about what one would do – or not do – if one’s daughter had been “raped while murdered,” and why. We get to know several characters and see a variety of motivations. Are some people just plain violent? The cast is superb. One can’t imagine an actor other than McDormand as Mildred. Harrelson and Rockwell are also excellent. I think that it’s the writing and direction that messes up Rockwell’s roll, not the performance.

Late in the movie Willoughby assesses Dixon and his motives and the appraisal just doesn’t fit with what we see, thus Willoughby seems to be inventing something about the character. Yet one of my favorite parts is the ending. The question we are left with is whether people can change or whether certain persons just must consume that cold dish of revenge.

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