04th Jan2018

‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry-Jones, Abbie Cornish | Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh


A series of sombre, foggy opening shots seems to denote a different Martin McDonagh, formerly best-known for the foul-mouthed black comedy In Bruges and the Tarantino-like Seven Psychopaths. But once the characters open their mouths – once bereaved Mildred (Frances McDormand) lists the curse words not permitted on the three billboards she intends to rent out – it’s clear that this isn’t going to be a quiet, contemplative study on the nature of grief.

Mildred lives on the outskirts of the titular town: a small outpost with none of the rural romanticism we associate with the American South (it looks more like a Welsh mining town). Mildred’s daughter, we learn, was raped and murdered, and the culprits were never caught. So she sets up the billboards – which ask why justice was never achieved – as a direct appeal to Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), presiding over the town’s raucous, misogynist, racist police force.

Few support Mildred’s cause, mostly because Mildred is such a confrontational character. (“We ain’t all the enemy, you know,” one character reminds her.) Lairiest of all is Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a noob cop who once tortured a black man, if rumours are to be believed (and yes, we believe them). Mildred’s disruptive cause triggers a series of flashpoints between herself and the police, and the police and the townspeople. Soon, events are out of control.

Mildred’s daughter will not be the only death in this story. Indeed, the film’s major curveball is that daughter’s death is not the main catalyst for Ebbing losing its collective head.

McDonagh’s film runs full counter against the traditional “make a righteous stand” idealist fantasy. Just as Willoughby is not altogether bad, Mildred isn’t wholly good. Both of them harbour a cancer: his is real and hers is the tumour of unresolved grief, metastasised into bitterness.

Mildred is at war but she never builds an army of followers. Forget social media – Mildred can barely keep her own son (a small role for Manchester By the Sea’s Lucas Hedges) on her side. Her rage is laser-targeted yet somehow misguided; and her demands for justice would be impossible even in the hands of a competent police department.

It’s just one of the ways McDonagh plays with our expectations, and he revels in reversing the normal laws of movie justice. It’s a sensibility which makes every scene unpredictable. Where there should be triumph, we get anticlimax; where there should be misery, we’re suddenly laughing. Scattered throughout are moments of remarkable poignancy. Just try and watch the hospital scene – which is ostensibly an absurdly comic setup – without tearing up.

But there is still the coarse humour we’ve come to expect from this filthy auteur. It’s the comedy of f-bombs, non sequiturs and rampant digressions, except vastly better written than your average gross-out comedy. Only occasionally does the script steer into cheap-shot territory. There is a lot of body-shaming: fat people, mostly, but also small people. And it’s here that that aforementioned movie justice really is required. Poor Peter Dinklage, for all his character’s decency, never gets the proper comeback his victimhood deserves. It’s a tricky balancing act which McDonagh doesn’t always pull off.

Other supporting characters are better supported. It’s great to see Caleb Landry Jones – so menacing in last year’s Get Out – playing a basically good man. Paradoxically, Sam Rockwell kicks against his slacker charm to produce a complex and layered monster. Rockwell gets a proper virtuoso moment, too: his physicality as he rides through one astonishing single-shot fight sequence is a work of pure skill on both sides of the camera.

As Dixon’s boss, Harrelson imbues Willoughby with gravitas, playing him as a resourceful leader burdened with a limited team. Sadly, Willoughby’s home life fares less well. Playing Willoughby’s wife, Abbie Cornish does good grief but she fails to nail the tone of her ensemble colleagues, and the chemistry with Harrelson is awkwardly absent.

When the universe won’t give us the world we wish for, where does all our anger go? What happens to our basic prejudices when they are confronted by kindness and decency? Can common ground be found in the extremes of shared despair? McDonagh’s willingness to blend deep existential interrogation with crass dialogue and broad slapstick must be applauded, even when it’s an imperfect marriage. He has crafted his most intelligent, moving and secretly optimistic film to date.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is out in cinemas from 12th January 2017.

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