Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The latest jet black comedy drama from Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards… is a searingly raw and hilarious snapshot of grief, vengeance and fury encapsulated by a trio of great performances.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) reaches breaking point less than a year after the rape and murder of her daughter Angela, and takes matters into her own hands by renting three billboards in her town with messages criticising the police response. Her move aggravates and shakes up the town, including police chief Bill Willougby (Woody Harrelson) and racist cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), as well as her own son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), with unintended consequences both comical and tragic.

McDonagh’s movies include In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, so if you’ve seen either you’ll have an idea of what to expect. The Irishman’s scripts are caustically crude and darkly hilarious, though tragedy, violence and a lot of surprising depth also feature. Three Billboards… is no exception, perhaps leaning a little more towards the deeper, more tragic elements than you might initially expect, though those of a more easily offended disposition may not want to watch. The oscillation between comedy and drama is often, well, dramatic, but this – alongside the great casting – makes the film more unique and much more interesting.

It explores a gamut of emotions including pain, anger and acceptance as well as misplaced fury, resignation and a dash of inanity for good measure. I particularly enjoyed how no one character is perfect or without flaws, though some elements of the plot (particularly in the second half) are far fetched given the tangibility of the setting and premise. However, the town’s realistic feel, the characters’ very realistically depicted lives and conversations and the all too sadly familiar crime and investigation largely help detract from these sticking points. The central premise and title in fact are actually based on similar billboards McDonagh saw driving across the USA, which adds another level of tragedy in that people have been driven to such actions in reality.

Another layer added to the film’s slower, rustic and realistic feel is Carter Burwell’s slower paced score, brooding with and often picking up along with the onscreen events, while Ben Davis’ naturalistic lighting and staging is often accentuated by scenes in neon lit dive bars, musty old police stations or stables and gloomy, out of town roads.

To develop my point on the emotional throughput of the film, you feel Mildred’s simmering rage yet also question her drastic actions. Willoughby’s supposed inaction angers you, but you are then introduced to his family and life and question that assumption too. And perhaps the most interesting case is Dixon, an idiotic and blundering racist allowed to be a cop, whose storyline is perhaps the most surprising of the bunch. McDonagh’s films and main characters are anything but rote, and a large part of why this film is worth the time.

The cast makes this film, and in particular the three leads do. McDormand’s excellent performance is fierce with simmering anger and fury, and yet at times both pensive and regretful, those scenes where Mildred’s harsh exterior crumbles or is pierced some of the film’s more affecting. She is also hilarious, with some of the best comedic scenes given over to her deliciously coarse yet candid (and correct) rants at those questioning her actions. While not a showy role, the actress is very good and (on previous form, like Fargo) should probably be on our screens more than she is.

Harrelson is the secret heart of this movie as a man trying to do his best against horrendous odds, and while the actor gets a chance to share some of his comic ability in some funny scenes with McDormand, his great portrayal of a deeply conflicted and ultimately scared man resounds throughout, his Southern twang influencing other characters and leaving an impact. Rockwell’s performance meanwhile is a slow burner, initially seeming like an unfortunate combination of bumbling idiot and malevolent racist, but the second act of the film sees a surprising and interesting character shift that the actor effortlessly handles. If anything, I would have liked to have seen him given more time to flush out Dixon’s complexities in full.

Of the rest of the cast, notable appearances come from Lucas Hedges, in an understated but strong role as the son grieving over his sister and furious at his parents (hopefully, after a similar role in Manchester by the Sea, he’s not becoming typecast). Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek and Peter Dinklage have impactful cameos as various characters related to the police and to Mildred, with each actor painting some detail into what might have been incidental roles.

John Hawkes and Clark Peters give small indications of their class as Mildred’s unpredictably violent yet amusing ex and as an incoming policeman struggling to deal with the events he sees. Finally, Caleb Landry Jones (often seen in creep roles such as Get Out) also deserves a mention in a sweet and surprisingly deep small role as the advertising salesman Red, the actor at last getting a chance to appear against skeezy type.

If you’re sick of the blockbuster fare at your local cinema and want something more thoughtful, more funny and definitely more thought-provoking, Three Billboards… is a treat, and makes me excited to see what McDonagh comes up with next.

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