A message to a murderer as a mother seeks vengeance

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

MA, 115 minutes

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The Irish writer Martin McDonagh is best-known for his blackly comic plays, but for a while he's been pursuing a parallel career as a filmmaker, beginning in 2008 with the weightless but irresistible hitman farce In Bruges. In either medium, he remains fascinated with the power of words - the explicit subject of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, his latest film as writer-director.

The billboards are on a remote road near the home of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose teenage daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was raped and murdered seven months before the story starts. With money she's scraped together, Mildred rents them for a year, using them to spell out a blunt message about her desire to see the killer hunted down.

This is language as weapon, with a vengeance. The premise sets the tone for a series of confrontations between the implacable Mildred and the generally disapproving townsfolk, including her volatile ex-husband (John Hawkes) and the weary town sheriff (Woody Harrelson). These scenes are as charged as you'd expect, and McDormand does not play Mildred's desperation for laughs - yet much of the dialogue retains an innocent silliness, despite the grisly subject matter and the constant use of four-letter words.

All this is typical of McDonagh, who has made a career out of combining harrowing material with sitcom punchlines, as if a story by Flannery O'Connor (referenced explicitly here) had been adapted by the writers of Father Ted.

He relishes the resulting whiplash, encouraging us to laugh where we shouldn't: a gruesome scene in a dentist's office, for instance, is followed by a lengthy exchange which presumes the word "dentist" is funny in itself.

But the tonal waywardness also conveys an underlying desperation, as if McDonagh had written himself into a corner and would try anything to get out. As the plot takes a series of left turns, he risks losing sight of its central irony - that Mildred is both a righteous crusader and an demented pain in the neck. Gradually the focus shifts away from her towards the slow-witted, racist sheriff's deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell): a man with his own sins to atone for and the strangest relationship with his mother (Sandy Martin) this side of a Hitchcock villain.

It's clear that McDonagh's ideas about the American heartland, such as they are, derive more from pop culture than anywhere else. The verbal showboating recalls Quentin Tarantino, while the mystery surrounding Angela's death harks back to Twin Peaks (as does the presence of Caleb Landry Jones, who had a small but spectacular role in the recent Peaks revival). Above all, the blend of quaintness, bloody violence and tongue-in-cheek metaphysics shows a debt to the Coen brothers - not by coincidence, given that McDormand is a longstanding member of the Coen stock company and is married to Joel Coen, one half of the team.

There's something frustrating and evasive about McDonagh's refusal to clarify just how seriously he wants to be taken, especially when he touches on issues - violence against women, police brutality and racism - that pervade the zeitgeist at the moment. At worst, the reliance on dopey humour and political incorrectness can be downright lazy: Peter Dinklage deserves better than to be cast as a character repeatedly denigrated as a "midget", especially as this rehashes one of the less appealing jokes from In Bruges.

Three Billboards could be described as an entertaining shaggy dog story, but McDonagh does have a playwright's sense of underlying structure, and it's to his credit that he leaves certain connections to be made by the viewer. Ultimately there's more redemption for the characters than might be expected: one key to the later part of the story is the suggestion, from more than one quarter, that language can be used to heal as well as wound.

Another is a scene where Mildred takes a hapless priest (Nick Searcy) to task over sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, in a tirade that initially comes off as simply an attention-grabbing digression in the Tarantino mode. Yet as a statement about collective responsibility, her words have some unexpected echoes - especially in light of a crucial revelation near the end, which suggests McDonagh has something to tell us about American notions of justice after all.

This story A message to a murderer as a mother seeks vengeance first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.