A mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder when they fail to catch the culprit.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ for some time now, and I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint, exceeding all my expectations and marking another fine entry into the filmographies of the talented Irish brothers (John Michael McDonagh of ‘The Guard’, ‘Calvary’ and ‘War on Everyone’ being Martin’s brother). The idea behind the very literal title for the film came from an experience McDonagh had whilst travelling through the American South where he drove past billboards relating to an unsolved crime. He’s quoted as saying ‘the rage that put a bunch of billboards like that up was palpable and stayed with me’, and he eventually used this as the inspiration and basis for the story that would become ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’. This is a smartly written movie, well directed and I think it does a superb job of balancing incredibly dark dramatic material with some wickedly uncomfortable laughs, a balance that not many can achieve successfully.
The film begins by introducing us to Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, as good as she’s been since ‘Fargo’), a mother who is still grieving for her daughter who was raped and murdered several months earlier. Frustrated at the efforts of the local police department to solve the crime, she decides to rent three large billboards on the outside of town, explicitly calling out the Ebbing police department and specifically Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for their inaction. One of the things that is great about ‘Three Billboards’ is its smart screenplay that toys with your expectations about how this premise will play out, especially pronounced through the initial setup that seems set to pit Mildred against the villainous, negligent police department, before subverting that expectation. The storytelling is far more nuanced and when it becomes clear as to why the crime wasn’t solved, it allows the characters and the narrative to operate in varying shades of grey, heightening the drama and making the audience question where their loyalties should lie. This approach carries on throughout the film and it’s a thrill to watch every narrative development unfold, often in more powerful ways than I’d have expected.
This is a film about anger and how this can manifest itself, often in harmful and dangerous ways, and we see this through Mildred especially, but also through supporting characters such as Sam Rockwell’s racist small town cop, and her ex-husband (John Hawkes). You can almost feel the rage and despair jumping out of the screen, and the film is at its most dramatically powerful in the small moments where Mildred is by herself, contemplating her own thoughts and actions. Martin McDonagh has shown his ability to depict troubling characters sympathetically in the past with films such as the terrific ‘In Bruges’, and he handles his characters well here, particularly with the arc given to Rockwell’s character, who could have been far less interesting in lesser hands. It’s an outstanding cast throughout, with Woody Harrelson also shining alongside Rockwell and McDormand, but this is Frances McDormand’s film and her tough, steely Mildred masks a deep pain underneath, and McDormand is incredible at depicting both sides of this deeply troubled woman.
‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is a phenomenal piece of work from Martin McDonagh. One of the funniest films I’ll see this year, yet also one of the most powerful dramas that covers themes such as murder, arson and racism, an incredible balancing act from a director at the top of his game. Its superb screenplay keeps you on your toes and had me gripped throughout, delivered by a wonderful cast, led by the imperious Frances McDormand. It’s hard to imagine I’ll see a better film this awards season.
Directed By: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Kathryn Newton, Kerry Condon, Zeljko Ivanek, Amanda Warren and Nick Searcy