TL;DR
  • An instant classic
  • Bleak, depressing but always hilarious in only the way McDonagh can be
  • Excellent script from McDonagh
  • Relevant, engaging story told at a perfect pace
  • Incredible performances from an A* cast
  • One of cinema’s greatest cliffhanger endings

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Take one look at the list of nominations this awards season and you’ll see a long list of excellent films, but there’s one with a strange title that stands out – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Not the sort of catchy title that studios often look out for, but writer-director Martin McDonagh is anything but ordinary, something this film certainly proves. In fact it’s fortunate that the awards have picked this film up, since otherwise a film like this could have been lost. Instead, the awards buzz have given Three Billboards a certain hype. Combine that with the reputation McDonagh has gained from such excellent films as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths (the former in particular being an all-time favourite of mine), does this film live up to the excitement? Absolutely yes. An incredible film with perfect performances and a first-class screenplay, McDonagh has given us a refreshing classic that’s sure to be lauded over for years to come.

Distraught over the rape and death of her daughter, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) gets so frustrated with the police’s lack of progress that she goes to Red Welby (Get Out’s Caleb Landry Jones) to rent out three billboards to challenge the authorities, publicly asking why there has been no arrests. Embarrassed and infuriated with these billboards, the police, such as Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Dixon (Sam Rockwell), demand she take them down. Confidently refusing to do so, tensions soon run high as anger permeates the town.

Strange as the story may seem, it’s oddly captivating and by no means ever boring. Despite Mildred being the protagonist, we don’t necessarily just take her side as the story encompasses a range of characters in the town; we see as much of Mildred as we do aggressive cop Dixon. The story really succeeds in challenging the audience’s perspective and expectations. It doesn’t require a big, Hollywood-style plot; instead it’s small and intimate and is all the stronger for it. This allows for a more thorough and detailed look at the characters and the effects the story has on them, making it the sort of film we need today, particularly with countless stories of sexual harassment and racial attacks we hear in the news. It’s a film with a story that implicitly challenges us to question our society and helps us perhaps to see some things in a new light. Add to that the best cliffhanger ending since The Italian Job (1969) and you have a story which sticks firmly in your mind.

Similar to In Bruges, another pro of its small story is that it allows the script to stand out, something very important in a McDonagh film. One of my favourite contemporary writers (his play The Pillowman is one of my absolute favourite plays), Three Billboards’ script is perfectly exemplary of McDonagh’s type of writing; bleak and depressing, but with plenty of dark humour peppered throughout, all the while thought provoking and challenging. More than this, his way of writing allows for strangely beautiful language, where profanity is just part of the poetry. The script is particularly good at balancing tension with constant comedy; you could be on the edge of your seat, waiting for something bad to happen, while laughing the entire time. It’s a strange sense of unease that you bizarrely can’t fail to enjoy.

As big a fan as I am of McDonagh, however, he can’t take all the credit. The casting is first-class and each cast member is excellent. Presumably McDonagh’s got a thing for ‘little people’ since Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage takes over midget/dwarf duties, as opposed to Jordan Prentice’s disgruntled actor in In Bruges. While not particularly important to the overall story, Dinklage’s character’s inclusion adds a nice bit of variety to the town’s population and it’s nice to see him play the opposite of Tyrion Lannister – mostly sober and a bit less successful with women. Still, he seemed a bit underused for such a successful actor at the moment. Abbie Cornish’s Anne also doesn’t seem to be given the screentime she deserves, but when her character’s married to Harrelson’s Willoughby, she’s always going to be dwarfed by him. Harrelson is once again effortlessly likeable and ‘cool’ as the town’s police chief, not becoming the antagonist you’d expect him to be. On the contrary, while you’d think we’d be on Mildred’s side for the entire film, instead we find ourselves almost sympathising with Chief Willoughby more. Harrelson does an excellent job of balancing emotion and humour. Rockwell’s Dixon is more arguably the ‘antagonist’ of the film if you need to apply the label somewhere, who again balances the humour in his character very well with his aggression and stupidity. He could easily have been a very detestable character, but Rockwell’s portrayal is so charismatic and he progresses throughout the film’s entirety to the point that our opinions and perceptions change. At the heart of the whole drama though, stony-faced and angry, is McDormand’s Mildred. Playing fierce and fiery wonderfully, McDormand is the one who really sells the film and it’s her character’s personality that carries the film just as much as the script.

If you liked In Bruges, you’d certainly like this. If you like any film with wit and comedy, you’d like this. If you like films set in a microcosm which question and reflect on our own society, you’d like this. The only problem is that there’s a shame there weren’t five billboards to make a five-star pun… McDonagh solidifies his talent with his third consecutive great film, this one being his best yet. With an incredible script and a perfect cast, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an instant classic, able to challenge an audience and make them laugh the whole time.

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