REVIEW: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

January 12, 2018

Director: Martin McDonagh
Screenplay: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones
Runtime: 115 Minutes




Deep in the forgotten and disenfranchised backwaters of America, Martin McDonagh weaves an absurd, unique yet almost believable tale of intolerance, parenthood and mourning. The tale of the Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, upon which a plea for answers and accountability lie; "RAPED WHILE DYING", "AND STILL NO ARRESTS?", and "HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?".


If that sounds like an off-kilter news bite, then the film appears to agree with such an assessment in ways both metaphorical and literal. Inspired by a true instance equally forgotten by time, this story of injustice and the rocky road of righteousness feels like something that would attract the attention of oddity with its intention and purpose buried and moved on from by the media as the suffering goes on in the hearts and minds of those to whom this has become a personal grievance.


For all its gravity and the sombreness of its subject matter, this is an outrageously sharp, dark and observational black comedy that takes down everything from police brutality and racial prejudice in middle America, to the status of the church as defenders and enablers to continuing systematic abuse. Its stabs at political and social commentary don’t always come off the strongest (we’ll get to that), but for the most part, it’s all in service of a story following a grieving mother and her personal war on the world in her search for closure.


McDonagh’s screenplay really is great as well, this feels like his most mature and identifiable picture to date with some of his most sympathetic and likeable characters. Pieced with emotion and an immensely satisfying and rich approach to characterisation through interaction, as well as a perfect alignment of casting with their respected roles. Very few of the most notable characters feel undernourished or served, and they all get a moment to reveal hidden depths and motivations in surprisingly different ways.


Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, the mother of the murdered girl, is a phenomenal creation and emotional anchor. McDormand gives one of her greatest performances and characters to the world as a hard as nails working mother, strapped in overalls and a bandana as a hardened fighter ready to go to war to find her daughter’s killer. She’s the film’s strongest presence as the central figure and instigator, and while she’s firmly dedicated to her cause she’s not painted as the working-class hero of the hour. In fact, the film posits that she’s likely not even in the right to act out in such a public way by placing defamatory blame at the feet of Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).


Willoughby is not the villain here, in many ways another victim of a social system with a nuanced and empathetic character and a fantastic performance from Harrelson. Neither is Sam Rockwell’s Officer Jason Dixon, a repulsive drunk racist who still lives with his mother and abuses his power routinely against minorities in the town. As despicable as that might sound, Rockwell is too compelling a performer and McDonagh too good a writer to let it lie there, giving him a narrative arc that’s as strong and credible as McDormand’s as their paths slowly intertwine.


Of the remaining cast are Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife, Peter Dinklage as a well-meaning helping hand with a crush on Mildred, Lucas Hedges as her concerned son, John Hawkes as her abusive ex-husband and a scene-stealing turn from Samara Weaving as his 19-year old girlfriend Penelope who is just about the film’s funniest and most naïve presence whenever she’s onscreen.


As amazing as the dialogue, writing, storytelling and Ben Davis’ beautiful photography is, there are some missteps. Besides one scene involving arson that feels like a bit of a misstep, although it leads down some interesting paths with its characters, there’s a troubling issue with its cries for attention toward the abuse of minorities by the police force.


Like too many liberal-minded white filmmakers, McDonagh’s cultural misappropriation of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ argument as a narrative for white people misses the point of its subject entirely, maligns actors of colour in the narrative and excuses itself by using it as a narrative crutch for incentive and drive. Although it is strange how forgiving audiences will be of such neglectful handling if its headed by the remarkable poise (or rather lack of) of McDormand’s utterly brilliant performance.


What it lacks in decorum and a lapsed rational for its political substance, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a fucking roller coaster of a picture; surprising, hilarious, expressive and sullen all at once with a brilliant screenplay, a powerful central figure and a satisfying and emotionally stable climax.


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