If I were to describe Martin McDonagh’s latest offering in one word, it would be UNCOMPROMISING. Violent, gritty, comedic, and almost entirely politically incorrect – 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is definitely not a film for those who want an easy ride.
The film tells the story of mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) as she fights small town local law enforcement. It’s been months since the tragic and violent murder of her daughter, and no culprit has been caught, or leads investigated. Deciding to take matters into her own hands, she hires three billboards on which she writes a harrowing message to the uninterested police officers –
This unapologetic brutal honesty is a theme that runs throughout the film, as we discover the motivations behind each characters actions, however idiotic or wrong they may seem. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell play the two law enforcers Willoughby and Dixon , who are the good cop and bad cop to Mildred’s turmoil.
Incredibly similar in tone to McDonagh’s sophomore film In Bruges, 3 Billboards is a serious, stark drama about humanity , yet with comedic rays of light punched in with perfect timing. A perfect example is a moment where tragedy has just befallen one of the protagonists, yet Rockwell’s dense Mommas boy Officer Dixon is too busy dancing to ABBA’s Chiquitita to acknowledge the hysteria of those in the same rom as him. The writing was clever enough that it had an entire audience of an early morning press screening cheering, clapping, laughing, and crying along with the narrative as it ebbed and flowed from hilarity to heartbreaking. Taking visual cues from other small town movies like Fargo (also starring McDormand), and Paris, Texas – McDonagh has opted for a sparse mise-en -scene to focus the viewer on the characters, and to emphasise the isolation that comes with traumatic events.
Whilst the writing is mostly very clever, well thought out , and inspiring – one particular scene left me feeling a little odd. Its revealed that Officer Dixon has a penchant for racism, an act that Mildred refers to as “N****r torturing. To this Dixon makes light of the scene by joking that its actually now called “Person of colour torturing” – dialogue that is attempting to show how small minded he is, yet joking about something of that nature almost rings too true to be funny. Whilst McDonagh is known for his dark humour, it can be considered a little inappropriate and insensitive for an Irish, middle class, white man to write jokes about racial slurs, when it is not an issue that he has been affected by.
Despite that writing slip-up, the rest of the script is flawless. Cutting, natural, emotive, and most importantly, human. The execution of the story is not all down to McDonagh, the cast as a whole is brilliant. Rising star Caleb Landry Jones comes fresh from the recent Twin Peaks revival as Red, the amused billboard salesman who admires Mildred for her gall and steadfast resolution, his performance further keeping his place as an actor that is due for his big break any time soon. McDonagh regular and Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage has a brief yet key role in James, the downtrodden man who feels his dwarfism stops people from seeing his kind heart, and Abbie Cornish, who plays Anne, the heartbroken wife to Harrelson’s Officer Willoughby.
Willoughby is an odd character – he cares , maybe too much, but he fears failure so shuts himself down. He desperately wants to help Mildred, but has no idea of what else he can do without his team turning against him. With his terminal cancer worsening by the day, he knows he is on borrowed time – and Harrelson performs this delicately and emotionally, the audience feeling his forlorn gaze as he looks at the life he is being forced to leave.
Rockwell is in a league of his own, yet to fulfil his rightful role as a leading man, but proving to be a scene stealer in every production that he is a part of. Infuriatingly narrow minded, egotstical, and downright stupid, Officer Dixon is a character you love to hate. Still living at home with his Mother, and attempting to prove his masculinity via prejudice, he is the very personification of small town America. However there is something charming about Rockwell’s performance, which by the end of the film leaves you with a soft spot for the dunce Dixon.
It is safe to say that Frances McDormand will clean up during this years awards season, already taking the Academy Award for Best Actress. Mildred’s stubbornness, anger, and drive seep through McDormand’s every pore, so much so that moments feel like they could be from a documentary. Her character is flawed too, she is impulsive, volatile, and vulnerable. She feels the only way to do right by her daughter is to find the killer and bring them to justice, or avenge her.
Overall, 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a hard hitting yet stunning film, often feeling like a punch in the gut. The incredibly talented cast did total justice to McDonagh’s writing and directing, expertly handling the switches between the light and shade of the story. Some will likely call this film Oscar bait, but I think thats incorrect, I see it as more of a prize catch.