‘…a vehicle for comedy and for showing character flaws…’
This dark comedy was filmed in 33 days on a relatively small budget, released in late 2017 in the US and had a world release in January 2018. It has already picked up numerous awards. This doesn’t automatically qualify it as a great film, but to me it is a great film. Mildred (Frances McDormand), in late middle age, is grieving her teenage daughter who was brutally raped and murdered eight months earlier. Frustrated by the lack of progress of the police investigation, Mildred pays for signage on three large billboards along the side of a road, outside the town of Ebbing (a fictional town) in Missouri. Read in sequence, the billboards have a simple and blunt message, demanding to know why the local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has yet to make an arrest. This dark subject matter and the emotional anguish that comes out of it sets the tension between the townspeople, the police and Mildred and her family. The film unfolds in a series of emotionally charged conflicts, but portrayed in sometimes hilarious comic fashion.
The entire cast is outstanding, but the strength of this film is the script by writer/director Martin McDonagh. It finds a nice balance between heartache and comedy, and each character is beautifully textured. The comedy (partly) comes out of the theme of vigilante ‘natural justice’, which is also a reason to be concerned about – what is the film really trying to say? I personally think it is a vehicle for comedy and for showing character flaws. And perhaps more than that, this vengeance is all-consuming and destructive. But no doubt some people will read it as approval for stepping outside the law to get justice; an ‘eye for an eye’ and all that. It possibly sails too closely to an under-current in Trump’s America, and yet for all that, there is a more explicit theme that is read out in three suicide notes – love. I think this is one of the reasons why I like this film so much. The darkness is balanced with light.
This dual between dark and light is all through the film. The characters, fuelled with rage, have a heart; or characters that are more comic caricatures of stupidity and prejudice, have more to them than can be seen on the surface. And the film’s ‘ambiguous’ ending has that same tension between dark (vengeance) and light (love).
Finally, the female lead Frances McDormand is superb. She plays an older woman, strong but flawed, and very much determined on her own way of seeing the world and rejecting the community’s expectations. It is a refreshingly unconventional character for a female lead, and hopefully a sign of things to come. I really like this film.
Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 4/5
‘…underlying hopelessness is more than made up for with excellent, sometimes hilarious, dialogue…’
There is a scene halfway through this film where a central character blows their brains out. It is not entirely unexpected, and it does not necessarily shock the viewer (considering the regular, random violence witnessed before then). It does, however, effectively jolt the focus of the film from one plain to another – from a tinge of heartlessness to a slightly more heart-filled and hopeful canvas. Sounds a bit warped, doesn’t it? But this is Martin McDonagh (In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) and this is how he operates. Three Billboards is not a pleasant viewing experience but it is a fulfilling one, particularly for people who enjoy well-written and witty scripts with carefully considered, no-nonsense characterisations. Frances McDormand has justifiably received the majority of plaudits for her utterly outstanding lead role as the badass Mildred Hayes, but Sam Rockwell (who never disappoints), Peter Dinklage (what a fantastic actor), Lucas Hedges (from Manchester by the Sea), Samara Weaving (from Home and Away…ahem) and Zeljko Ivanek are superbly cast in various roles as Ebbing townsfolk too. Clarke Peters (the unforgettable Lester Freamon from The Wire) also turns up halfway through the film as a stand-in Sheriff and gives us a wonderfully satisfying moment where his character dusts off some disgusting racist vibes with class and aplomb.
There are many satisfying, and sometimes deeply touching, moments throughout Three Billboards, but equally there are many troubling and distasteful moments, marked by abrupt violence, casual racism and some cheap, unfunny jokes at the expense of dwarfs, disabled people etc. McDonagh seems to pride himself on producing work that prods, provokes and manipulates (indeed not unlike Hitchcock or, say, Von Trier). There are several commentators who have insinuated contrivance and triteness in McDonagh’s direction and I wouldn’t disagree. The man was born in London to Irish parents and he became a playwright in his mid-twenties. The majority of his filmwork has dealt with subjects far from his origins (i.e. the US and…Belgium). There is an obvious lack of familiarity and knowledge of nuances to the places in which he sets his films. It sometimes feels like they are just a figment of his imagination, fantasy almost. Well, in fairness these are not meant to be based on true stories so I guess he can get away with that somewhat!
In Three Billboards, he sets proceedings in small-town America – fictional ‘Ebbing’ in Missouri. If this place was to exist, I am sure that the inhabitants would be in revolt over their depiction– Cletus the slack-jawed yokel from The Simpsons comes to mind in Sam Rockwell’s character. Nevertheless, at no point did it feel to me like this is a true place. The cultural associations with the landscape and background of ‘Ebbing’ are wafer-thin. McDonagh instead maintains his focus on story and characters. If there is a commentary on humanity to be found here, it is a commentary on our collective stupidity, cruelty and inability to cope with our flaws. McDonagh’s nihilistic and pessimistic tendencies in story are always very prominent (Seven Psychopaths was overwhelmed by this and In Bruges had minor flaws in that direction too) but at least here, there are effective tender moments to counter that. The underlying hopelessness is more than made up for with excellent, sometimes hilarious, dialogue and admirable pacing. Three Billboards deserves credit because it works its way around those questionable moments to establish a well-rounded and fairly enjoyable slice of Americana cinema, even if it does not capture the true essence of country and place.
Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 4/5