“RAPED WHILE DYING.”
“AND STILL NO ARRESTS.”
“HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”
Those are the trio of statements found on the eponymous three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri in Martin McDonagh’s devastatingly searing new film. The Academy Award-winning Irish playwright and director is known for jarring, caustic and profanely funny black comedies (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), but he reaches new heights here in this Oscar certainty.
Whether Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will win Best Picture or not is up for debate. But few viewers will leave the cinema arguing that any acting awards heading the cast’s way come March are undeserved. Our prediction? The film’s central performer Frances McDormand (Fargo) will pick up Best Actress and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’s Sam Rockwell (arguably the greatest character actor of a generation) will stroll off with Best Supporting Actor.
That said, picking out single performances from an ensemble boasting the likes of Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes and Caleb Landry Jones almost seems obscene.
The message on those large, abandoned wooden structures is a stark one. Placed by a local woman whose daughter was snatched, assaulted and killed some seven months previously, their sole purpose is to draw attention to her unsolved murder. In doing so, however, Mildred Hayes (the career-best McDormand) annoys not only the local police department but the entire close-knit community of Ebbing.
Not that Mildred cares. The whole point of the giant red signs with the eye-catching Impact font lettering is to shake things up, upset folk and disgrace them into action. But while the sheriff named on the third sign (the always-excellent Woody Harrelson) is sympathetic to Mildred’s cause, his racist and hot-headed boozehound deputy, Officer Dixon (Rockwell), is less impressed. And determined to kick up a mighty stink.
We’re then slowly introduced to a rogues’ gallery of local characters that also object to Mrs Hayes’ sheriff-shaming, including her violent ex-husband, soda-flinging schoolmates of her son and – in a particularly satisfying scene – a ‘fat dentist’. Soon, after the town blames her for a shocking incident involving Chief Willoughby, Mildred’s hatred is returned and she very quickly becomes Ebbing’s pantomime villain. The loathing goes both ways.
But is Mildred’s hate directed accurately? Or is merely rerouted away from herself? True, the cops haven’t found her daughter Angela’s killer, but no evidence was left at the scene. We soon learn that the bile may be a way of not addressing the guilt she feels for her own part in her daughter’s death (‘I hope you do get raped!’ being her ill-judged last words screamed to her soon-to-be-dead child).
One particularly outstanding element of the film is the character development we see. McDonagh’s previous films often substitute ‘a journey’ for a few extra cheap laughs or a gimmicky set piece. Here though, we see adaptation and growth from the main players on show. Especially Officer Dixon who, for some reason, needs to be set alight before he repents and atones for his dreadful behaviour.
Not only do the characters evolve before our eyes, the film itself seems to do so as well. We kick things off in a whirlwind of retribution, justness and fury. But in the end, it’s pretty clear to see that forgiveness, thought and serenity make up the true path to moving on from trauma.
There’s plenty more to admire here too. The screenplay is first rate and, again, highly likely to bag McDonagh another big gold statuette in the Spring. The script is as tight as it is hilarious, pitch black and without an ounce of fat on it.
McDormand’s performance will linger in the mind too. Fierce, fearless, yet funny, her Mildred Hayes might be a middle-aged gift shop employee, but she’s also a warrior. Complete with foul-mouthed battle cries and even her own uniform (her dark blue overalls and near-camouflage bandana making for almost pseudo-militaristic garb).
Perhaps the single most impressive thing about Three Billboards… though, is its ability to balance poignancy and pathos with laugh-out-loud black comedy. There’s no contrast between the two tones, they’re perfectly intertwined. And that’s some feat.
It’s arguable that the plot ends up free falling a little towards the end and the sheer level of farce starts to tip off the scales somewhat. But it all comes together and the final scene is perfect. Somehow satisfying, yet somehow not. The last few minutes are packed full of uncertainty, hope, laughs and bleakness. A bit like real life.
Have seen Oscar frontrunner Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri yet? If so, what did you make of it? Is it one of your favourite films of the past twelve months? Let us know in the comments below!