Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a powerful, capricious and sometimes darkly funny tale about the consequences of simmering rage. No stranger to such material — having touched on the violent nature within people in 2012’s Seven Psychopaths and surprise cult mobster flick In Bruges (2008) — Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh now turns this attention to everyday folk. In the past, McDonagh has explored the tools that people use to express outrage; for instance, a gangster’s manifestation of anger would come through a gun. But here, he asks what a humble mother’s tool might be?’ Well, it’s right there in the movie’s title and a key aspect in this story of retribution.
With a lack of progress from the local authorities in finding the culprits behind the vicious rape and murder of her teenage daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton) — the case now going on for seven long months — embittered mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents three billboards on an empty road just outside of her home in Ebbing, Missouri, to coerce the police into re-opening the investigation. Adorning the billboards with tags that read ‘Raped while dying,’ ‘And still no arrests?’ ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’ the messages provoke an immediate backlash from the community, especially because Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a revered figure that truly believes he’s done all that he can to try and catch the culprit/s. As tensions rise, the consequences of Mildred’s billboards begin to spill out in ways that the quiet town couldn’t possibly have anticipated.
Firstly, to say that the film’s idiosyncratic characters are flawed would be an understatement — they are deeply broken, each carrying a former trauma into their future, uncertain of how to change and more importantly, accept the past. There’s Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby, who’s carrying the biggest secret in town — he has pancreatic cancer. Under him, there’s Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist loose cannon who’s struggling to shed the influence of his bigoted momma (Sandy Martin). Mildred’s son Robbie Hayes (Lucas Hedges) is in a deep state of depression, forever reminded of his sister’s gruesome murder, while his mother, Frances McDormand’s Mildred, is at the center of it all, desperate for finality, choosing to spread the shadow of her fury across the entire town through her bright red billboards. Although this clash of egos proves more wounds to lick, there may just be a slither of redemption to be found on the horizon.
Inspired by a bunch of billboards he’d seen about an unsolved crime somewhere down the ‘Georgia, Florida, Alabama corner,’ McDonagh has crafted a gem of a movie that’s centered on the inner rage of injustice and whether that thirst can ever be quenched. While last year’s Wind River chose a quietly unsettling path in its exploration of unfairness, here, with Three Billboards, we’re confronted with a visceral examination of the subject, by way of reactionary violence, exploding into either the verbal, physical or emotional kind. Tackling similar ideas to the films of director Sam Peckinpah, Straw Dogs (1971), McDonagh continually challenges the function of violence, chiefly what it reveals about man’s true nature. Something of a warning, McDonagh’s pictures remind us that painful memories will continue to consume us, in even more destructive, damaging ways, if we don’t learn to leave them behind.
The cast assembled here are pretty much flawless – there’s not one shoddy performance in sight. To begin, there’s the presence of the beloved Woody Harrelson, War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), who, of the central players, may be the most sympathetic, but as we later find out, just as complex. Sam Rockwell, Seven Psychopaths (2012), has one of the toughest roles as the antagonizing Officer Dixon, who, thanks to McDonagh’s excellent direction, is always compelling, even when his actions are disgraceful. Make no mistake about it though; this is definitely the Frances McDormand show. Having cut her dry witty chops collaborating with her spouse writer-director Joel Coen, namely in the crime drama Fargo (1996), McDormand, once again, taps into aspects of a character that’s always relatable, even in her extremes. While she may go too far at times, her pain is palatable.
There are also a bunch of amusing bit parts, namely Samara Weaving, The Babysitter (2017), who portrays the ditzy Penelope — Mildred’s abusive ex-husband Charlie’s (John Hawkes) new fling — Game of Thrones (2011) star Peter Dinklage, who shows up as a neighborhood dwarf who takes a bizarre liking to McDormand’s fiery Mildred, and Australia’s Abbie Cornish, Geostorm (2017) who plays Willoughby’s loving wife, Anne.
I realize that I’ve spoken an awful lot about the bleaker elements of the story, but I should also mention that viewers might find themselves surprised at how often they’ll chuckle along the way. Whether it’s a therapeutic expletive-filled rant — McDormand’s drive-by takedown of a hapless reporter is absolute gold — a clueless Officer Dixon reading a letter while his police station goes up in flames — cinematographer Ben Davis, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), painting a beautifully juxtaposed image of peace and destruction — or the awkward energy of billboard vendor Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), there’s an astonishing control of material that, if handled differently, could’ve played as a straight-up morbid drama; such handling is echoed by Martin McDonagh’s older filmmaking brother John Michael McDonagh, who brought similar contrast to the heavily themed Calvary (2014). Clearly, talent runs in the family.
For anyone craving something a little different, a little more ‘mature,’ i.e. cinema with thematic weight, stellar performances and genuine unpredictability, you can’t go past Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I can’t be more thrilled that there’s a film like this out there in wide release – thank you, Fox! Take the trip — it’s a knockout.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie