Mildred Hayes: Badass of 2017

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
(UK/USA, 115 min.)
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, Jon Hawkes, Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, Clark Peters, Abbie Cornish
Fox Searchlight Pictures
John Wayne is dead. Ditto Gary Cooper. These old gunslingers are nothing but bones. Long after these movie stars departed, the iconic heroes they inhabited also rode off into the sunset. The small town hero of the Midwest is an old myth long dispelled from a country with no room for old men.

But a rogue hero still walks the streets of small town America. Her name is Mildred Hayes and she’s a tougher motherfucker than any of these ol’ whisky drunking SOBs ever were. Played by a foulmouthed Frances McDormand, clad in a bandanna and coveralls in place of the westerner’s cowboy hat and spurs, Mildred is a fantastic anti-hero, a beacon of citizen justice in a backwards America that would make the noble gunslingers of yore shake their heads. What a badass.

The small town of Ebbing, Missouri needs a hero like Mildred to stand tall even if she does it in her own unconventional, controversial, and cuss-laden way. She challenges the town’s sheriff, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), to get off his lazy ass and do his job, and she does so by erecting three billboards outside their small town that read, in big black letters atop a fiery red background “Raped While Dying…And Still No Arrests…How Come, Sheriff Willoughby?”

The billboards are a provocation for Willoughby to find justice in the violent death of Mildred’s daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), for which the mother blames herself. Flashbacks reveal Angela’s final day at home a terrible fight with Mildred that shows why this tough cookie of a mother needs peace and closure. Mildred deals with the controversy in her own way by dropping f-bombs and standing up to her challengers, sometimes giving them a swift kick in the ass and sometimes staring them down with a focused, defiant, and authoritative gaze.

The provocative challenge of the billboards is akin to riding up on a horse and spitting before the lawman’s boots in the thoroughfare for all the town to see. The billboards cause a hullabaloo, but they succeed in bringing attention to the case. Mildred gets people talking and Willoughby thinking. Willoughby faces a battle with terminal cancer and he too needs some closure on this case. He wants justice to be his legacy, not the billboards that could stand tall as a trio of defiant headstones. The controversy of the billboards ensures that Mildred making some enemies in town and in the police department, particularly good for nothing officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), whom she singles out as a sore spot in the Ebbing police due to a recent incident in which he assaulted an unarmed black man.

Wise-cracking and deadpan funny, McDormand’s Mildred is a hilarious anti-hero. The part might not be much of a stretch for McDormand, but her performance as Mildred is a textbook example for a perfect marriage between casting and part. One can’t imagine any actress other than McDormand playing this role. She is very, very good and very, very funny using all the chops she honed playing oddballs and eccentrics in Coen Brothers’ movies, but she also develops the no-nonsense character with an effective core of humanity. Mildred’s hardened sense of humour masks the pain she carries and McDormand delicately handles the mother’s grief and loss, particularly in a touching scene with a deer that ranks among the best in her career. It’s very hard to judge Mildred for the extremes she reaches since McDormand makes her empathetic and real despite the often cartoonish violence and mania of Three Billboards. It’s her best role since Fargo.

McDormand leads one of the best ensembles of the year as Billboards assembles a motley peanut gallery of memorable characters who will have audiences laughing and gasping—sometimes from shock and sometimes for breath. Harrelson is particularly good as the kind and sincere Sheriff Willoughby, a likeable antithesis for the noble lawman of the westerner days. Rockwell is an unhinged hoot as Dixon and he embellishes every ounce of the yokel’s arrested development. Billboards, like a great Coen Brothers film, lands the right actor for every part from McDormand’s lead to smallest of the memorable and salt-of-the-earth country bumpkins who populate the ensemble. Other highlights include Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage as Mildred’s pint-sized admirer and Sandy Martin as Dixon’s crass and salty mama.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths) juggles some very delicate eggs as Three Billboards provides sharp and irreverently funny commentary. At the centre of the film, however, is Mildred’s quest to bring a sexual predator to justice. Billboards resonates with unexpected depth in the wake of the film industry’s own response to power and predation. With McDormand’s unconventional anti-hero leading the audience to an open yet thoroughly satisfying ending, the splat-n-chuckle violence of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri invites us to consider how best to confront outlaws in our midst. This thoughtful black comedy is one of the year’s best films.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is now playing.