The Irish writer’s name crops up on a few occasions in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — most disturbingly right before a character proceeds to make a fatal move.
But it’s these words that Wilde wrote, in an entirely different context, that aptly summarise the traumatised soul of director Martin McDonagh’s fuming drama doused in dark humour.
Inclined to constantly throw off the viewer and compel them into questioning their emotional allegiance, if any, he reveals his protagonists to be forceful yet wholly unreliable.
The most flourishing traits of McDonagh’s film-making (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) and one that he passes on liberally to this Oscar-nominated feature as well are its unpredictability and a staggeringly casual outlook on all forms of aggression.
What worked favourably for the quirky crime capers often feels trivialised and gratuitous in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri as it weakly shuffles between revenge and redemption.
Focusing on an irate mother’s efforts to pressure complacent cops into finding the culprits behind her daughter’s gruesome death, it’s not that the film is lacking in punch. If anything, Frances McDormand’s thumping central performance is a masterclass in how to sock the screen with flawless outrage.
As Mildred Hayes, the mother of a raped, murdered, daughter, she is a picture of unconscious grimness and instinctive ferocity that’s at once plausible and menacing.
Unflinching in her offensives that refuse to discriminate between police or priests, her wit-dipped venom may embarrass her teenage son (Lucas Hedges), infuriate her ex-husband (John Hawkes) and stump the respected cop (Woody Harrelson) and his violent sidekick (Sam Rockwell) whose attention she’s purposefully attracting by installing three provocatively worded billboards.
But neither the stunt nor the enormity of her tragedy goes unnoticed.
What surprises is her capacity to be gentle.
When she puts a knocked over beetle in place or runs to get help for an ailing officer she was locking horns with moments ago or regretfully reflects on her nasty choice of words during a heated exchange with her daughter, McDormand plays out these contradictions beautifully.
There’s a strange transparency to the Fargo star’s stony reserve, an unmistakable clarity and unabashed strength that powers her cinematic invincibility and McDonagh’s fourth film.
As the story progresses, the director’s fondness for fickle ways of fate wedges in and nothing is quite as it seems.
For a good part, this uncertainty, packed in heaps of profanity and distaste, is what colours the film’s extreme morality and claustrophobic depiction of Southern State intolerance with intrigue.
Led by McDormand and supported by the likes of Harrelson and Peter Dinklage, the scenery acquires complexity and heart. Not to mention the exceptional Sam Rockwell who makes it impossible for you to look away despite his character’s fundamental wrongness and questionable turnaround.
Yet as much as I enjoyed these class acts and their award-winning potential, I cannot wrap my head around McDonagh’s ideas of atonement and selective forgiveness.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri‘s insistence to tidy up the mess through coincidences and contrivances, force an almost overnight change of heart and absolve a vitriolic creature with sure enough history of racial violence is not only unconvincing but defeats all its justice-seeking ideals.
If, unlike me, you can set these ethical differences aside, the McDormand steamroller is one hell of an engaging viewing.