Martin McDonagh directs Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell in this drama about a tough grieving mother who uses three provocative advertisements to induce the local sheriff’s department to keep investigating her daughter’s tragic rape and murder.
Martin McDonagh is not a subtle writer. He flirts outrageously with bad taste, knowing the hurtful power of certain words. He prints them on a billboard, writes them in a heart wrenching letter and has his characters spit smartly written dumb obscenities at each other knowing that while some are meant to wound, others merely to win points. He is a playwright who thrives on strong actors having twisting, turning verbal battles; offence is for losers, political correctness for the weak. Some things are said to truly hurt, others to vandalise a conversation beyond repair, others to force action out of the other. It gives actors fantastic (if sometimes overtly stagey) scenes to excel in, it gives commentators troubling language to justify or be outraged by. When he knowingly lobs in a dwarf, a racial slur, a cunt or a rape in to the rat-a-tat-tat between players he knows he is lobbing in a hand grenade, whether it goes off is up to the viewer. Some can get past his bad behaviour with no true offence meant, others are too inflexible in their sensibilities to enjoy the power struggles he wrangles from his talent. The talent here is divine, McDormand deserves every gong going to her, the outcome more wholesome than say the cynically flip Seven Psychopaths. Billboards just about works as a mystery, as a small town drama, as a strong character essay, as an ultra-violent slapstick comedy. But it still feels like a self-aware exercise too often, the actors have to work a little too hard to overcome the throbbing unreality of the dialogue and formal tricks. And it is up to you whether you feel smartly deployed bouts of rape and cancer and revenge and hateful language should be toys in a playful game. I’m fine with it but in this day and age feel like I’m in a minority. At its best Billboards is a powerful little film, and that’s thanks to an eager ensemble supporting a fine central performance. A lesser, safer script probably wouldn’t have attracted them all together.