Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, (a cumbersome title) is winning awards and nominations everywhere, so probably wise to review it now than later. Once the word gets around of how good the film is it’ll be difficult to get a seat.
This ferociously female driven drama comes from Martin McDonagh, writer-director of the enjoyable hitman romp In Bruges, (2008) in which two sentimental Irish hit men on the run turn introspective, and then turn on each other, and Seven Psychopaths, (2012) a pantomime of outrageous characters some people thought should be taken at face value – seven screaming over-the-top idiots in love with an apology of dog, a Shih Tzu – rather than the seven deadly sins they were meant to be. Both films starred the pint-sized brat Colin Farrell, but not this one. That’s enough to remind you McDonagh is strongly Irish in his outlook, though he was born in London. (This has a bearing on my criticism later.)
Three Bilboards is a finely crafted allegory – with the emphasis on gory – a study in ten stages of anger, from wrath to revenge, a revenger’s tragedy in the John Webster mould. In the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, a young boy seen feeding a live mouse to a cat identifies himself as John Webster (1580-1634). When Will Shakespeare asks the boy what he thought of Titus Andronicus, Webster replies, “I like it when they cut the heads off. Plenty of blood.” There’s blood in Three Billboards, violence and gruesome death. And some of the language is as crude as the violence. There again, it reminded me of the shameless honesty of Ireland’s greatest writer, James Joyce.
A four star film because it is such a satisfying drama, fizzing with terrific dialogue, it offers the best acting you will see this side of the 2018 Oscars.
We are willing Mildred the anti-heroine to secure resolution as she battles bureaucracy, inertia, misguided, and then pig-headed resistance to her cause. It misses greatness by stringing together an implausible list of coincidences, and having one support character completely out of place.
A highly stylistic piece of work, as mesmeric as concentric rings flowing from a stone dropped in flat calm water, you accept its soap-like serendipity of incidents. The muted colours of Ben Davis’s wonderful photography seep into your subconscious. More than anything else, the images install spirit of place.
Grieving mother Mildred Hayes, (Frances McDormand) is haunted by the brutal slaying of her teenage daughter, knowing that their last words together were in anger. “If you go out tonight you’re not borrowing my car!” “Okay I’ll walk. It’ll be your fault if I get raped!” “I hope you get raped too”, shouts back Mildred, regretting the thoughtless barb almost instantaneously. This moment is shown in the only flashback in the plot, a shame that it’s needed, not kept to a voice-over memory in the vein we get to know what’s written in letters when they are spoken by the reader.
Mildred seeks vengeance and redemption. She taunts and goads the local police for their lack of progress in solving her daughter’s rape and murder months earlier. The idea comes to her to express her anger in as few words as possible that are not libellous but questions, plastered across three large billboards by the roadside that will prick the conscience of the local police signified in the well-meaning shape of Chief Willoughby, (Woody Harrelson) and the slow-witted bigot of his deputy, (Sam Rockwell).
There’s a maxim in hackneyed cinema, if a character coughs a lot in the first act they will be dead by the third act. Chief Willoughby is handed the Death Card by McDonagh early on, pancreatic cancer, but takes us all by surprise in the manner he faces death.
Although the film is about grief, anger and revenge, how taking the law into your own hands leads to more violence, the black gloom of it is relieved by a pronounced wit. It’s extremely funny. Even faced by grizzly moments you can’t help chuckling, and laughing out loud. The humour, wrapped up in some memorably witty lines, mostly come from, or bounce off, Mildred’s ability to humiliate people with her razor sharp tongue. The monologue she delivers when a priest visits her house to tell her she has gone too far, is priceless. Every line she speaks is a gem even if in the back of your mind you’re wonder if somebody living in a remote rural area would be that gifted verbally. Not for her soapy apple pie philosophy. It’s straight to the jugular every time.
She gets the better of most people in Ebbing, man woman and teenage school student, but especially the racist deputy Jason Dixon, (Sam Rockwell) a near rookie from police academy, already disciplined for beating up a ‘man of colour’ in a police cell, Dixon just about suffered by his smarter and more diplomatic colleagues.
As the drama progress, finally introducing an African American actor into the story representing integrity and authority, (Obama style) as the new head of the police station, I got strong feelings of In the Heat of the Night, that mould breaking vehicle starring Sydney Poiter, and Rod Steiger as the gum chewing police chief.
What Three Billboards lacks is In the Heat’s steamy heat filled southern suffocation and a musical theme giving the weave heft. We are given Motown’s The Four Tops, Walk Away Renée, and some Hillbilly country ‘n western grit.
What it had me wonder was how close to the local culture McDonagh gets. Will a cinemagoer from Missouri think he’s spot on or way off the mark? That’s where the soap side of things enters. There’s no background to the decades of American ills, the poverty, race hatred, or domestic violence that permeate life there, the most affluent nation on the planet, that’s has some of the materially poorest people in the world.
The locals keep us interested, but I can’t guarantee they are what you’d find in the real place. Mildred has a love-hate relationship with the feckless advertising manager Red Welby, (Caleb Landry Jones), and employs him to poster the three successive billboards of title fame: “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” But would there be an ad company sitting in such a small place with so little to advertise? She works in the local gift shop; a tourist shop in the back of beyond? What would they sell that is made locally worth buying? And why would the owner need an assistant when hardly anybody drops by?
Mildred’s bête noire is Dixon, a racist, volatile cop. Soon as the billboards go up Dixon is beating the crap out of Red and smashing up his advertising office. Rockwell is tailor made to portray dimwitted villains, here playing one more outrageous than calculating. He never considers the consequences of his actions, or the wrath of his boss. He deals out summary justice with impunity. And yet by Act III a chastened Dixon is looking at Mildred not with contempt but with sorrow, and the feeling is mutual. You wish them well, but you have a nagging feeling something isn’t right about the personality flip.
In Willoughby, Mildred has a kindred spirit. He’s apologetic over the absence of an arrest for the heinous crime of her daughter’s slaying, explaining it could have been a traveller in and out of town. He left no identity nor DNA – another coincidence. Willoughby is full of apologies but no action.
For solace and understanding the terminally ill, always-looking-for-the-good-in-folks, Willoughby turns to his wife Anne, (Abbie Cornish) but she’s a stray character from an Aussie film. Her accent is New South Wales Australian, weirdly out of place. No reason is given why Willoughby would marry her, or how she got to Ebbing. And I’m still unsure why Willoughby sees good in Dixon, a man so demonstrably crazy.
What gladdens our hearts is McDonagh goes out of his way to show us the humanity in all his characters, a hallmark of his writing, and a laudable quality when, in the case of Mildred’s gawky teenage son, he leaves too many things unsaid.
Dixon is given almost the same time on screen as Mildred suggesting they are opposing forces of nature, she all justice under the law, and he all justice outside the law. In fact, most of the characters stand as examples of those we meet in society.
So, all-in-all, lots of oddities, lots of coincidences, lots of about turn personality traits, and yet the films stands up as a solid piece of work with lots to say about human nature.
One of the stand-out aspects of the whole enterprise is how Mildred never changes out of her boiler suit overalls no matter what she’s doing, at home cooking, working in the gift store, eating at the town’s restaurant. I loved that. I hope McDormand chose to do that and it isn’t in the script.
This film panders to our worst dictatorial instincts, the kind of thing we imagine we’d like to do to all the sons of bitches who have done us harm. The way Frances McDormand deliveries her deadpan barbs always seems right on target, particularly because she represents women who are at the fag end of law when jeopardy calls. That’s what we cheer. That and the feeling we wish we’d had the guts to say and do as she does when faced with adversity.
- Star Rating: Four stars
- Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage
- Director: Martin McDonagh
- Writer: Martin McDonagh
- Cinematographer: Ben Davis
- Composer: Carter Burwell
- Rated: 15
- Duration: 1 hour 55 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: Excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: Crap; why did they bother?