Film Review |Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Fire, fury, tears... and laughter make up the heady-and-hilarious concoction that is Martin McDonagh’s award-winning comedy-drama, starring Frances McDormand • 4/5

A young woman is raped and murdered on the outskirts of the sleepy town of Ebbing, Missouri. While an understaffed – or, at least, staffed by ineffectual and raging morons like Lt Dixon (Sam Rockwell – police department led by the well-meaning veteran Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrleson) claims not to have any evidence to lead them to the culprit, the victim’s mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) decides to take matters into her own hands.

Making full use of a forceful manner we immediately assume has become her trademark around town – a trait understandably intensified by the recent tragedy to hit her life, and the life of her remaining child, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) whom she raises as a single mum – she books the film’s titular three billboards to read: ‘Raped While Dying’; ‘Still No Arrests’; ‘Howcome, Chief Willghouby?’.

The move appears to be inspired by nothing more than petty spitefulness, and that’s how it’s seen by the bulk of the small community in which she’s still forced to live, working away at a gift shop and handling any number of petty indignities – like the sight of her abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) dating a 19-year-old zoo employee, Penelope (Samara Weaving) – all the while trying to process the throbbing grief in her chest.

A grief that yearns for justice, even if it leads to the whole world turning against her.

Written and directed by Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a true sucker-punch of a movie. As the above synopsis suggests – and the film’s directness is such that fluffing it up with context before getting to the meat of the story is an entirely pointless exercise – the story gives us an immediate and striking emotional and narrative hook.

This is perhaps down to McDonagh’s experience of writing for the theatre – with productions like The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Innishmore still being staged... the latter was even put up in Malta by Unifaun back in 2005 – because familial grief and a desire for revenge lies behind some of our most ancient stage-tales (the Elizabethan-era ‘revenge tragedy’ was its own genre, and even further back, just think of the Ancient Greeks and the likes of Medea...).

Beyond redemption(?): Sam Rockwell
Beyond redemption(?): Sam Rockwell

But whatever the inspirations behind this heady, quirky and volcanically heartfelt film may be, McDonagh has pulled off something great, and he’s found a more than appropriate channel for it in Frances McDormand. The actress needs very little qualification as a worthwhile screen presence, having etched herself in cinema history thanks to her portrayal of the heavily pregnant and doggedly compassionate police officer Marge Gunderson in the Coen Bros’s Fargo (1996). Here she flips the tables even on that role, delivering a masterclass in the many faces of grief.

But one face dominates the proceedings over all others. And that is a blind rage that leads to the kind of black humour that hooked us during the film’s trailer but which also – as we allow the full two-hour film to unspool in all its glory – reveals the pitfalls of such a one-note stance against the world.

And this is one of the most worthwhile take-aways from McDonagh’s blistering, upsetting and – ultimately – triumphantly enjoyable film: we are all broken human beings, but given the space to heal even the most broken and toxic among us can come back and do good things. On the surface, this may just read like a standard Hollywood story of fist-pumping triumph at the tail end of initially – and apparently – insurmountable odds. But McDonagh is a meticulous writer who traces the emotional trajectories of his characters – all of them. Every laugh he tickles out of you and every tear he plucks of out of your eye – by sucker punch, more often than not – is wholly, entirely earned. There is no space for melodrama here. But McDonagh leaves no room for cheap cynicism neither.

 

The verdict

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an emotional rollercoaster that fully earns each spin. An original and gripping story will get you there, but the clutch of powerhouse performances aided along by intelligent, funny and heartbreaking writing will ensure you enjoy a “complete” cinematic experiences devoid of shortcuts and cliches. Its sweeping up of the major Golden Globes should come as no surprise. Now let’s see what the Oscars will bring.

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