Director: Martin McDonagh
Blueprint Pictures/Fox Searchlight Pictures
We might be placed just outside of small-town Ebbing in Missouri, but tonally we are all over the map when Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) paints a none-more-black comedy with a few extra dark shades of the old ultraviolence…
People will tell you that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Cohen Brothers-lite, or an off-beat tribute, or both – but it’s a far deeper and more compelling tale. There are performances seared on the screen from both Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell – and perhaps the surprise-turn is from Woody Harrelson, which is not to say he isn’t (usually) a great actor, it’s more the fact that here, very subtly, he provides understanding into just how complex – how much of a mess – it all is.
McDormand, as Mildred Hayes, is grieving the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. She pays for advertisements on the titular billboard, the message she sends is clear: How Come There Have Been No Arrests? She names – and shames – the police chief. She reminds the community that her daughter was raped while dying.
Mildred has had enough and the billboards mark the start of her vigilante attempt to restore a version of justice. Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) is dying of cancer. His hands are tied. He understands the hopelessness of the situation and is not without heart. Officer Jason Dixon (a frightening, wonderful Rockwell) is almost without brain. But more than just a redneck caricature. He hits first and if he can form them he’ll maybe ask the questions later.
The brutality of the film exists on many levels, psychologically it’s there in ever hard-burned stare and hard-earned care that McDormand manifests. She’s always a powerhouse actor but here she is able to put across so much in between the lines. She is the face and force of physical grieving, she is its toll. The dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers Dixon is racist and suffering from both inferiority and superiority complexes. His badge and gun seemingly arriving in a raffle one day as much as being earned. The prize announcing him as so much more than he actually is.
Are these bumpkins part of Trump’s America? Or do they exist in and around it, oblivious to it…
The justice system might be screwed but at least – as Chief Willoughby understands – it’s a system. For better and for worse. Vigilantism is a screaming mess. But isn’t it the right of the grieving and wounded to scream? And what if they feel they can’t be heard? Scream louder, right?
Well, Three Billboards doesn’t have answers. But plenty of questions arise. And if you find yourself frustrated by some easy-picking coincidences there’s also plenty of genuine inventiveness in the storytelling arc. And one of the great deceptions here I think is in the grit. Yes, it’s dark and twisted, and the audience is, at times, almost forced to laugh and some truly horrible, grim moments. But the mistake is to think that this is rooted in realism. It’s a fable. A parable. And so in bold fiction we see or feel the real truths. The philosophical conundrums.
Three Billboards could exist just for the acting performances. They are some of the finest you’ll see in mainstream cinema in recent years – Harrelson, McDormand and Rockwell are all mesmerising. There’s fine support from Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes and Abbie Cornish.
But I think the film cuts a lot deeper than just some terrific acting.
It’s a reminder that moral quandaries are never worked out simply, that being on the right side of the law is fluid. It changes from situation to situation. And most terrifically in Three Billboards, and it’s important to try to address this without spoiling part of the plot, there’s a big question around whether lessons are ever – or even – learned.
There’s a slippery slope from retaliation to revenge. And Three Billboards has us thinking about that – and about futility, about strength of character and purpose – long after its killer-good final frame.
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