UK Release Date: 12th January 2018
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish
Synopsis: Frustrated with police inaction after the brutal murder of her daughter, a woman purchases three huge adverts outside her small town in order to put the case back into the public eye.
As usual, the UK is getting a big awards season feature right in the heat of the Oscar buzz around it. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, from In Bruges filmmaker Martin McDonagh, is released having just dominated the film categories at the Golden Globes and looking likely to follow up that success with a hatful of Academy Awards as well. However, putting the initial festival raves, the award speeches and the inevitable backlash to one side, the film is a machete-sharp drama that aims its bruising body blows with the pinpoint precision of a prize fighter.
The person aiming those body blows is Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who purchases the eponymous advertising space in order to increase public awareness of the lacklustre police investigation by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into the grim murder of her teenage daughter. McDormand plays Mildred as a single-minded human whirlwind, who channels her anger into action with the fury and ferocity of someone who is absolutely certain in her morality. This is McDormand’s film for the most part and, when she’s on screen, the entire movie submits to the enormity of her presence.
That’s not to say McDonagh deifies his protagonist. Mildred is an aggressive and uncompromising woman, who thinks nothing of wishing death upon those she believes to have wronged her. Her anger at men is potent, whether it’s the man who murdered her daughter, the cops she thinks are toothless in their response to the crime or the abusive partner (John Hawkes) who continually makes her miserable and, in her mind, has shown an equally ineffectual reaction to their child’s slaying.
The sins of the men in Three Billboards come together in Sam Rockwell‘s performance as Dixon, who is tremendously loathsome as a hateful and racist man given power and undue respect as a result of the uniform he wears. He doesn’t take his job seriously, but is known to have brutally beaten a black man in custody and is prone to explosions of shocking and indiscriminate violence. He is a character used to the shield handed to him by society, which is not a protection extended to Mildred, who has her motivations, flaws and actions scrutinised by the citizens of a small town where the police command automatic respect.
That respect is embodied most clearly by Woody Harrelson, who is rightly gaining almost as much awards attention as Rockwell and McDormand for his work as the police chief who becomes the subject of Mildred’s ire. Willoughby is a fundamentally decent man, devoted to his profession and to carrying out that work in the correct way. Three Billboards is careful to ensure there’s a tension between Mildred and Willoughby in that they represent the two shades of right in this story – Mildred wants justice for her daughter, whatever the cost, while Willoughby acknowledges that, pragmatically, there is a cost. Harrelson’s quietly touching performance conveys this complexity perfectly.
McDonagh walks a tricky line with this material, showcasing his signature flair for jet black comedy alongside a more complete dramatic narrative than in either In Bruges or oh-so-meta follow-up Seven Psychopaths. The script is acidic and the dialogue corrosive, with every word burning through the comfy-cosy backwards thinking of small town America, which is only more resonant in the age of Trump. The billboards themselves are an incendiary cinematic device, realising Mildred’s stark, frank words – there’s a reason trailers have kept the first board hidden – in mammoth black letters on a burning red background that seems to radiate and amplify her rage.
As a former playwright, a compelling script is almost a given from McDonagh, but Three Billboards stands out for its structurally audacious approach to what could easily have been a simplistic story. The patient plotting delivers a handful of jarring tonal shifts that up-end the story and bring loaded moral questions to the forefront. None of the central characters have straightforward, linear arcs and the story ends with a final surprise, leading to a climactic shot pregnant with moral quandary.
There have been criticisms of Three Billboards, including in its approach to race, and many of those reactions are entirely valid. This is a film, though, that wields extraordinary power and delivers that ferocity through a witty, perceptive script that knows exactly when and where to skewer the American heartlands. When one character mournfully observes that “things have moved on in the South”, it communicates exactly the kind of rot McDonagh is so keen to highlight. Three Billboards is a profane and passionate wake-up call, with the Force 10 gale of McDormand’s performance filling its dark heart.
Pop or Poop?
It’s going to get the kicking you expect of an awards season frontrunner, but Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is no glossy slice of Hollywood pap. Martin McDonagh’s latest onslaught of verbal barbarity walks the line between darkness and comedy with impish elegance, packing in commentary about the blindness of America’s small towns.
The film also gifts its central trio – McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson – with the roles of the lifetime. Dutifully, they knock it out of the park.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.