Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Cabel Landry Jones, Amanda Warren
Written: Martin McDonagh
Running Time: 115 mins
Release date: 12th January 2018
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn’t a title that is snappy or skips off the tongue easily. Yet if you look beyond the title, this new film from the man who gave us In Bruges has produced a masterpiece. A tragic comedy with the feel of a 70’s small-town Americana movie that will have you gasping in shock and surprise, laughing both openly and in a way that you wonder if you should be laughing and crying all in the blink of an eye. This is thanks to a razor-sharp script, simple, unfussy direction and some magnificent performances, especially from the three leads.
Mildred is a woman both grieving and angry. Her daughter was kidnapped, abused and murdered, yet the police who have been working on the case for months, have come up with nothing. While driving past three disused billboards just outside town she comes up with a plan to kick-start Chief Willoughby and his troop. By renting the billboards and asking the question about what is being done. This action triggers a series of events that wake up the sleepy town in ways even Mildred wasn’t expecting.
Martin McDonagh is a writer who never pulls any punches. He goes right to the heart of his characters, flaws and all, with a use of language that would make Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It blush. As proven with his two previous films, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh manages to imaginatively use swearing in ways that aren’t just there to shock. It shows that these characters are not living in a rose-tinted world. They are tough, they are troubled and, more importantly, human. No one in this film is perfect. In the hands of a writer with less talent, they could be looked upon as plain nasty. Here you see the good as well as the obvious bad.
McDonagh uses an act of violence, which is never shown, to shake up a town where the police seem to have a reputation for racism, as one officer, Dixon, has been accused of torturing a black suspect, although it was never proved. Mildred, a woman dragged through hell and back, wants answers, even if the answers aren’t there. She cannot bear that the local law enforcers seeming to do nothing. Yet this action of using advertising boards to ask a question brings problems she couldn’t possibly predict, yet she is so driven by anger that she refuses to comply with the requests of removing them.
You are drawn into this world from the moment we meet Mildred, sitting in her car looking at these blank boards. A simplistic scene with no dialogue in which the woman is biting her finger then stroking her chin. Within those small movements, we know absolutely everything about this lady. You immediately can sympathise with her plight, which then brings even more surprises that I don’t want to mention here, as it’s part of the journey to the terrific film.
The performances are universally superb with the three leads excelling. WoodyHarrelson, as Chief Willoughby brings plenty of surprises to a role that, when you first see him, you think he is one kind of character and yet he is as far removed from that idea. When Harrelson is good, he is great. Here he is terrific and his lilting Southern accent is used to great effect, particularly in the letter reading scenes. Sam Rockwell, who I have always thought was massively underrated, at last, gets a role he can show everyone just what a quirky, strong actor he is. As the cop, Dixon, he is both funny and sad in equal measures. You should hate this racist, violent man who lives with his mother like a Norman Bates character, yet Rockwell brings humility to his role.
Yet it is Frances McDormand who rules the film as Mildred. In her best role since Fargo, she is magnificent, showing every inch of pain, anger and frustration all over. This is a woman you wouldn’t want to mess with and yet there are moments when you are crying with her, laughing with her and even cheering her on with when she does things that you know is wrong. She may be hard to beat when the awards are given out this year.
Three Billboards comes at you like a bolt out of the blue. It might not be for everyone, with its bouts of violence and extreme language but underneath that is a funny and heartbreaking tale of redemption, grief and a town confused. It could have been a film made in the 1970’s in its sleepy town, downbeat manner but it’s a film that is constantly surprising. Magnificent in every way.