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When Willoughby learns of the billboards, he blows a gasket, and it seems clear where the movie is headed: to a battle between the police and Mildred, the aggrieved citizen who has taken the law — or, at least, the power of public shame and coercion — into her own hands.When she accuses Willoughby of being “too busy torturing black folks” to solve her daughter’s murder, there’s an unmistakable echo of the case of the recently pardoned Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who in his anti-immigrant crackdown fever ran an office that failed to investigate hundreds of sex crimes against children.
Yet that does nothing to soften Mildred’s fixation on her billboards. It’s not a whodunit with a clear villain and a connect-the-dots suspense plot that will lead to his capture — though it plays off our desire for all that.
(It just makes her say, “They won’t be as effective after you croak.”) A local priest tries to calm her down, and she responds by likening the church to the Crips and the Bloods (“You’re culpable,” she says). Lastly, it’s not a tale that offers a pat resolution — though when it’s over, you feel like you’ve been on a journey, and that Mc Donagh has led us through the paces and pleasures of a three-act story in a stylized, postmodern way.
A bit later, during an appointment with a dentist who’s friends with Willoughby, she grabs the live drill and plunges it down into his thumbnail, at which point it becomes clear that Mildred isn’t just pressuring the law — she’s vilifying what she views as a patriarchal conspiracy. In its vortex of agony and anger, forgiveness and redemption, “Three Billboards” may play, during awards season, as a kindred spirit to “Manchester by the Sea,” yet that movie was a masterpiece of dramatic realism.
Mildred’s son, Robbie, is played by Lucas Hedges (from “Manchester by the Sea”) with a cautious poise that cues us to see that dealing with his mother has never been a picnic.
Mc Donagh, working with the cinematographer Ben Davis, gives the small-town country settings of “Three Billboards” a graphic visual spaciousness, yet unlike the Kenneth Lonergan of “Manchester,” he’s an example of how you can take the playwright out of the theater, but you can’t take the theater out of the playwright.
Frances Mc Dormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, Clarke Peters, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, John Hawkes, Kathryn Newton, Zeljko Ivanek, Brendan Sexton III, Samara Weaving, Nick Searcy.