Expect the unexpected as Irish filmmaker Martin McDonagh takes his pitch black brand of dramedy to the west side of the Atlantic. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is funny and affirming, traumatic, shocking and unfailingly absorbing. At its heart is a phenomenal turn by Francis McDormand.
It is a baron, haunting and deeply elegiac vista that opens McDonagh’s third feature film, following Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges. Three skeletally abandoned billboards appear, each consumed by a thick veil of fog – a graveyard of humanity -having remained unused for over thirty years. On one the image of a baby is broken up, torn asunder by the violent passage of time. Cut to a neat, effective title card and a spellbinding story is born.
Inspired by the triad of real billboards McDonagh encountered in America, Three Billboards tells the story of Mildred Hayes (McDormand), who rents three billboards near the fictional town of Ebbing (as in: only half of ebb and flow completion) to express her rage and grief at the fact her daughter’s rapist and murderer remain uncaught seven months later. On the billboards, to a blood-red backdrop, Mildred commissions three stark lines. The first reads “Raped while dying”, the second “And still no arrests?”, before the final asks “How come, Chief Willoughby?”
Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is top of the local police, a dim group of thick racists – they don’t ‘nigger’ torture, they ‘persons of colour’ torture – but is himself highly sympathetic to Mildred, if frustrated by her actions. His sentiment is largely shared by the town, with the local reverent telling her that ‘everybody is with you about Angie, nobody is with you about this’. Even Mildred’s son, Robbie (Luke Hedges), is only empathetic so far, resenting his mother for digging up old agonies. Except, for Mildred, they’re not old, they remain fresh, raw and painful.
The many twists and turns of Three Billboards are best experienced in situ. As with McDonagh’s previous work, most successfully In Bruges, humanity is a murky field, with the flow of sympathy liable to change within individual scenes. Indeed, Three Billboards is by far the director’s most complex, intelligent and demanding work yet. Fundamentally, there are neither good nor bad people in McDonagh’s world, but real people who do good and bad things. Real people who are here brilliantly realised and consistently characterised.
All of this is embodied in, and reflected by, McDormand. As Mildred, hers is the mould of performance that demands endless analysis but will never yield all, for too many layers and too much sorrow are there to truly comprehend. Dressed iconically, almost guerrilla-like, in overalls and a bandana, the character’s rage is expressed not in outbursts so much as repression and a mastery of language. Sharp talking and effortlessly witty, Mildred runs rings around those who stand in her way with resilience that ensures a continual burning of her passion. Naturally, one would expect Mildred to be the film’s heroine, but McDormand channels something much deeper than that. It’s astonishing to watch and extremely challenging.
Three Billboards rides into the UK on a wave of controversy, with a backlash accusing the film of double standards and a racial blindspot. There is certainly a full-bodied debate to be had on the matter but not here, for to say too much is to spoil the film. All I will say is that it is unfair to demand that cinema sets the world to right and unfair to expect films solve human problems. Furthermore, those who claim that McDonagh’s script asks viewers to sympathise with Sam Rockwell’s Jason Dixon – who undergoes a beautifully constructed arc here – ought to question whether that is the point of the film’s conclusion?
In Three Billboards, McDonagh has once again crafted a masterful script and found the perfect cast to deliver it. The film is instantly iconic, often very funny and frequently horrific. Breathtaking.