Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review
It is a grey, misty morning in the opening scene of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, with fog hugging the three dilapidated signs of the title. They sit on a lonely road on which few would travel since the highway took away anyone who isn't lost. Carter Burwell's beautiful oscar-nominated score puts one in the mind of the Coen Brothers, a feeling further emphasised when we see their oft-regular star Frances McDormand. Here, Frances plays Mildred Hayes, and Mildred is quietly regarding those three forgotten billboards from her car. While this is a film the Coen Brothers could have produced, Martin McDonagh brings more humanity to his sombre and moving third full-length feature (following Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges), an elegiac western with a sympathy for all of its flawed characters.
The next scene sets the tone of McDonagh's confrontational, dry and acerbic wit as Mildred sets up a contract with Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) of the Ebbing Advertising Company to rent the billboards. Her message across the three huge signs is stark, simple: ¨RAPED WHILE DYING¨; ¨STILL NO ARRESTS¨; ¨HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?".
Mildred is referring to her long murdered daughter, but this isn't a crime mystery. Peter Falk isn't going to turn up at the end, with the murderer in handcuffs, no, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a study of human nature, of dealing with grief and how the reverberations from one act can affect many people. That might sound like hard going, especially without a gift-wrapped, obvious denouement but McDonagh's even-handed direction and deft screenplay makes for a genuinely funny film, even while it threatens to break your heart.
One of the cruel lessons to be learnt whilst grieving is that even in the earliest moments after a person's death, the world has already moved on. That loved one whom you could not have lived without has left you to do just that and no-one else is waiting for you to catch up. In fact, give it long enough and grieving might cause confusion. ”But it's been months...". Seven for Mildred, who is still in pain and, you wonder, is she really expecting anything of her protest? Or is she angry that the town has recovered? The three billboards definitely get everyone's attention and she becomes a pariah in the town; it was probably the last sign attacking Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) that did go a step too far. The mild-mannered Chief is revered and, more importantly, a good man that would do anything to find the killer, but as he tries to explain to Mildred, there's just no evidence to follow.
Plot-wise, there is very little to the film; the town was in a routine, not necessarily one that needed disrupting, but nevertheless, Mildred's act is like a grenade and everyone reacts to the fallout. Even Mildred does very little else to drive the film; she might be the lead character, but it's the ensuing actions of Harrelson's Chief and his deputy, Jason (Sam Rockwell), that move the film on, the latter bending the law to push Mildred into making a mistake and forcing her to drop the signs.
This might actually be Sam Rockwell's film as it is his racist cop that has the clearest arc, to tackle his own impotent rage lest be swallowed up by it. Rockwell is marvellous, playing Dixon as a dangerous man-child, a laughing stock one minute, a viable threat the next, in particular when he tosses someone out of a first floor window after pistol-whipping them for no good reason. And then again, the way Rockwell deflates him with a stutter every time his beloved momma is brought into a conversation is hilarious. His balance in the role is typically brilliant, but Dixon attracted an unfair backlash on the Internet (what doesn't?), as the very idea that a racist cop could justify sympathy was abhorrent to some. Understandable, but that isn't this film. Plus, it's important to consider that Dixon's prejudice is unsupported by anyone else. He is alone, as are all the characters, despite their families.
That is no more apparent than in Woody Harrelson´s Bill Willoughby - one of his best roles - the kind of guy you wish you could meet for yourself. He's the anchor for the town, and especially Dixon, hence why Mildred's sign is seen as such a personal attack. Much as he is annoyed by Mildred, Willoughby hasn't given up helping her. Harrelson's slow-burn humour and dignity is fantastic and gives the film a solid base, even more so than Frances McDormand who is allowed even more freedom because of him.
Ultimately, even though she actually does very little past the signs, this is Mildred Hayes' film and McDormand is staggeringly good, surpassing even Marge in Fargo. Her bombastic, caustic nature and confidence with a dental drill pull in the laughs, her barbed lines delivered perfectly, but it's her pride, the vulnerability in her eyes, her palpable anguish as a distraught grieving mother, that will cut you to your core. It is a monumental, courageous performance and the film is exceptional for containing her.
Perhaps it is down to Martin McDonagh reflecting Mildred's character throughout his direction and screenplay. It is a muscular film with attitude, unafraid to look away from violence and demands the viewer to do the same, just as we sit and laugh at the gags too, but the payoff is in the heart, worn proudly on the sleeve. It asks questions of faith and forgiveness in a very different way to his brother John's lyrical Calgary, but nevertheless, they make for a cracking double-bill, sharing a narrative method and approach to character.
Ben Davis' muted photography, married perfectly to Carter Burwell's distant score, emphasises a vein of sentimentality that runs through the story, which caused another backlash (I mean, really, why do we bother with film criticism on the Internet anymore?); some narrative heavy-lifting is done by the reading of letters written by an absent character. In anyone else's hands, they could indeed have been manipulative, but McDonagh allowing a little contrivance speaks for everyone who has grieved for a loved one. What you wouldn't do to hear their voice.
Deleted Scenes - nothing extraordinary, but Rockwell/McDormand are never boring, so worth seeing. They were clearly just cut for pacing and repetition.
Six Shooter (short film) - with Brendan Gleeson, who has worked with John McDonagh.
Gallery - on-set photography is always nice to see, but doesn't offer much when we are missing a making of or commentary.