Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Review #1,306: 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' (2017)

Along an overgrown, disused highway somewhere outside Ebbing, Missouri, three formerly dilapidated billboards still bearing the torn remains of whatever advertisement was previously displayed there over a decade ago, have suddenly sprang back into life. Only the messages delivered aren't in the name of some big-name brand or local company, but they are the deliberately confrontational words of grieving, thoroughly pissed-off mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand). The first billboard reads 'Raped While Dying', followed by 'And Still No Arrests', and finally 'How Come, Chief Willoughby?' The opening scenes of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which see Mildred negotiate a deal with businessman Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) and quickly install the provocative messages, set up a David-versus-Goliath story, in which a justice-seeking woman sets out to shame and spring into action the police department she feels has failed her following the brutal rape and murder of her daughter.

Yet, this being a film written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, the kind of story suggested in the trailer is only the tip of a far more engaging and complex iceberg, and one that isn't afraid to take you to some incredibly dark places and urge you to accept the redemption of a truly repulsive character. The police department, led by family man and all-round likeable pillar of the community Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), take the billboards as a declaration of war, but Willoughby, being a sensible officer of the law, pays a visit to Mildred for some one-on-one time in the hope of resolving the matter peacefully. They chat almost like old friends, or former lovers who have stayed on good terms, but Mildred is unmovable in her quest. Even the revelation that Willoughby has terminal cancer and is close to death isn't enough for Mildred to think twice about her actions, and it turns out that she was already privy to this information before renting the boards. "They won't be as effective after you croak," she admits, almost like it's her way of apologising.

The role of Mildred was written specifically with McDormand in mind, and the result is her best performance since 1996's Fargo and will surely bring her second Oscar win come March. The first time we lay eyes on her she is marching into town like a gunslinger seeking revenge, dressed in blue overalls and sporting a tightly-wound bandanna. Despite the pleas of her teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who is bullied in school because of his mother's antics and performance on the local news station, as well as threats from the drunken, racist Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Mildred is unwavering in her strides for justice. Even her deplorable, wife-beating ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) voices his disapproval, but it all falls of deaf ears. Yet despite her questionable methods and finger-pointing at a police department who seem to have genuinely run into a dead end with the case, you stay with her until the end. I can't think of any other actress working today who could pull of a feat with such conviction, especially when dealing with a character who spends most of the movie keeping her real emotions close to her chest, or channelling them into rage.

McDonagh views small-town America as tightly-knit and full of big characters, a place where everybody knows everybody and gossip spreads like wildfire. In many ways, Three Billboards shares much in common with Calvary, the under-appreciated effort by the director's brother John Michael from 2014, and is structured almost like an ensemble piece. By bringing in a wealth of colourful supporting characters, played by the likes of Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Kerry Condon and Clarke Peters, as well as those already mentioned, McDonagh can explore themes of anger, bitterness, loss and loneliness on a far grander scale. While the wonderfully obscenity-laden script will keep you both laughing and wincing throughout the running-time, the film is at its most compelling when showing genuine compassion for the characters inhabiting the story. It refuses to judge anybody too harshly, even peeling back the layers of the most loathsome character in the story, the permanently hungover Dixon, who is played by a career-best Sam Rockwell. Three Billboards somehow manages to be both enormous fun and utterly heart-wrenching, and coming off the back of the underwhelming Seven Psychopaths, this is a huge stride in the right direction for the enormously talented McDonagh.

Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters
Country: UK/USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) on IMDb

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