Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Stretching out the very worst of small town ‘merica stereotypes to hard-edged humorous effect, the oddly titled THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is Martin McDonagh’s latest piece of blackly comic provocation. Tonally, THREE BILLBOARDS is of a piece with his previous two features—IN BRUGES (2008) and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012)—and maintains McDonagh’s penchant for working stories in specific milieus. This latest switches up a sleepy Belgian historic tourist town, and L.A.’s urban spread, for hick-town Missouri: a place where the sheriff knows almost everyone and secrets are few and far between. Well, the least important ones anyway.
The centre of THREE BILLBOARDS is Mildred Hayes, a mother grieving the loss of her teenage daughter, brutally murdered 7 months before the start of the film, who seems to have stalled in the ‘anger’ stage of the grief cycle. Turns out her daughter’s murder has remained unsolved and she aims to reinvigorate the police investigation care of the titular THREE BILLBOARDS. Her controversial actions lead to (or precede) a typically unsettling chain of ‘McDonagh film’ events and character turnarounds as Mildred, by main force of will and a small amount of luck, drive closer to solving her mystery. Whether she’ll find peace of mind is questionable.
The filmmaker digs, with gleeful abandon and a distinct disregard for good taste, into issues of race, police corruption, change, personal growth and more. McDonagh’s style is never one of hard realism. Both the narrative action and characterisation is heightened past the point of reason. Though people and places feel real enough, the goings on are not those of everyday people in actual places—though the last year of Trumpian madness and related hate crimes gives pause to this assertion! In Ebbing, MO, a police officer can assault people (particularly people of colour) with barely a wrap across the knuckles. A person can inflict the most over-the-top act of vandalism and get away with it despite easy evidence pointing to their guilt, and hardened, violent racists can change on a dime when confronted with a modicum of grace, which illustrates a worldview counterpoint. These unrealistic plot points may come off with as much subtlety as a kick to the groin, but McDonagh’s sheer audacity combined with the sharpness of his pen make this as enjoyable a ride as any of his other works. Well, perhaps ‘enjoyable’ is not quite the word: many of these laughs come with a guilty sideways look attached.
THREE BILLBOARDS is anchored by a convincingly confronting performance from Frances McDormand in the role of Mildred. She perfectly encapsulates the tone of this pushy, pig-headed woman who will not back down in the face of failed justice. She plays it dead straight, delivering equal portions of laughter and grimacing. Sam Rockwell’s scenery chewing depiction of truly-awful-but-too-stupid-to-actually-be-deemed-corrupt Officer Dixon provides many of the difficult laughs and character arc moments. The support cast is filled with a bevy of great actors filling the film out with memorable moments. John Hawkes sinks back into unpredictable ‘Teardrop’ (from WINTER’S BONE) mode as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie and goes toe-to-toe McDormand in a few scenes. Peter Dinklage does good work as a romantic hopeful and one of the few townsfolk who has any time for Mildred and her angsty manner. Samara Weaving (Hugo Weaving’s niece!) as Charlie’s much younger and slightly ditzy girlfriend is a standout in a role which could have disappeared.
With a plot that covers many possibly triggering events, and a highly provocative, more than dark-edged approach to its (often bleak) content, THREE BILLBOARDS earns its R16 rating and will prove problematic for many. But for those who are able to sync with McDonagh’s style, the film has many dramatic, comedic, and thematic rewards and should prove a thoughtfully entertaining cinematic outing.
Rating: R16 Violence, rape themes, suicide & offensive language.