Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, with Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell
Certainly a well-acted film, funny in parts, painfully truthful in others, but ultimately, to my mind, uneven in tone. It made me think of Calvary, which – I have just discovered – was written and directed by McDonagh’s brother; both films could have done with an editor having a quiet word about laying it on with a trowel. It also had loud echoes of the Coen brothers’ films: absurdly violent, foul-mouthed and blackly comic.
A young woman is horribly murdered; Mildred, her hard-boiled mother, pushes for the police to do more by renting the billboards. But the awful truth is that the police have done as much as they reasonably can. There is no justice. There are other awful truths: mother and daughter had a fractious relationship and their final words to each other were typically harsh. Is Mildred seeking justice or vengeance? The wise police chief – the only one with a pleasant home life in the film – is dying. Mothers – like Officer Dixon’s – can be malevolent as well as determined.
Officer Dixon was the stumbling block for me. He is a violent, racist bag of rage who is reborn, phoenix-like from the (literal) flames, as a halfway decent human being after reading the chief’s posthumous letter. This letter – full of jarring folksiness telling Dixon he needs to learn to love – discerns traces of decency in him hitherto unremarked by this particular member of the audience. It fits in with a Christian/Roman Catholic view of love and redemption, but not quite with reality.
Guilt and redemption are the themes. The ending is inconclusive (and, actually, could have come at any time in the previous 20 minutes): Mildred and Dixon head off to kill a man whom they believe to be as bad as the uncaught killer. They acknowledge that they may not carry this through; I understood they may choose vengeance and anger, or they may choose love and forgiveness.