Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
UK Release: 12/01/2018
Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a story of justice.
But it’s also a lot more than that.
The third film from writer and director Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an exploration of grief, loss, heartache and revenge… but summing it up in that way is also a huge simplification. Mildred (played by Frances McDormand) is a mother who wants justice for her deceased daughter – raped and murdered sometime before the film even begins.
It’s easy to think of this as a film about a mother’s grief. But while Three Billboards is full of anguish, that’s not all the movie is about. Instead, it sits within that space where pain resides, basking in the ugly truth of a violence so unspeakable, most of the characters in the film just don’t want to face it. And it’s this pain which shines a spotlight on the community of Ebbing.
It’s a complex movie – by far McDonagh’s best so far.
And it’s a beautiful, brutal tale of pain and revenge in the American Midwest.
It all begins with the Three Billboards, situated on a road outside the town of Ebbing, Missouri where no-one in their right mind even drives anymore. But Mildred isn’t in her right mind. Tortured by the fact that the local police department have gotten nowhere in the case of her daughter’s murder, she decides to take drastic action – hiring the billboards to display a personal message to the local chief of police, Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson).
“Raped while dying” reads the first billboard.
“Still no arrests”.
“How come, Chief Willoughby?”
As you might expect, the local police don’t exactly take kindly to this kind of attention. But it’s not Chief Willoughby who loses his head over the billboards. Instead, it’s Officer Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell) who takes it personally. And it couldn’t have been a worse person to cross. Office Dixon, as with the best of Sam Rockwell’s roles, is unhinged. He’s an angry white dude with a history of abusing black prisoners… but as with everything in this movie, it’s a lot more than that. He’s vile and abusive, and not exactly a picture of sanity, but Dixon is just as complex as everyone else. You may think you have him pegged from the outset, but nothing is quite as it seems, with complex emotions and intriguing motivations coming into play throughout the movie.
And much like real life, everything can change in a heartbeat.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Martin McDonagh movie without a hefty dose of black comedy, and Three Billboards balances this with gritty, hard-hitting drama throughout. One minute, Office Dixon is laughably chastising Mildred for using the n-word while the next, he’s being an absolute bastard to the newest black police officer in town.
It’s comedy, it’s drama, and it’s a whole lot more.
But at the heart of it, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a character study.
And it’s a phenomenal one, at that.
Frances McDormand paints the anguish across Mildred’s face, wearing every emotion and feeling every brutal second of her daughter’s final moments scene by scene. But it’s far more than that. It’s one of the most compelling performances I’ve seen in a long time – walking the thin line between heartache and complete mental breakdown.
Similarly, Woody Harrelson pulls out all the stops with a subtle portrayal of a man who seems to be the stable centre of the entire community. Chief Willoughby fails to rise to the Three Billboards’ taunts, and still speaks to Mildred with care and grace, despite that face that he’s been put firmly in her sights. But there are hints that something isn’t quite right, which all comes to a dramatic head with one of the must sublime monologues in the movie.
It really is spectacular, and it’s a touching moment that affects every main character.
But Sam Rockwell really steals the show.
Officer Dixon is a prick. He’s full of hate, rage and racism, in a backwater town that allows such a man to thrive and rise to the top. But despite all his bluster, he’s as fragile as Mildred. Truth be told, he’s nothing… and the constant taunts about living with his mother are played to beautiful effect. He’s not the big man he pretends to be, and there’s possibly a better man in there somewhere.
And this is explored to perfect effect in the film’s final act.
Officer Dixon is fascinating, and with Sam Rockwell behind him, you both love and hate him in equal measures. It’s an absolutely stellar performance, and it’s thankfully just one of many in Three Billboards. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if the movie lands plenty of acting nods throughout awards season.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a spectacular film which picks apart the American Midwest. But despite exploring issues of race, justice, equality, and revenge, it’s far more than the sum of its parts. The film goes beyond any of these issues, instead looking deep into the psyche of its characters in an attempt to find answers.
Whether or not we find them is immaterial.
But what we do find, is a group of flawed individuals trying to do the best they can. And that’s far more interesting than getting to the bottom of their issues.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri stars Frances McDormand, Woody Harrleson, and Sam Rockwell.
Martin McDonagh both wrote and directed the movie.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri heads to cinemas on 12 January 2018.