Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review – one of the most intriguing films of the past year
Having made a big splash with short film Six Shooter and then the dark comedy-drama In Bruges, Martin McDonagh the famed playwright turned filmmaker hit a stumble with 2012’s Seven Psychopaths. He now returns to the screen with the ensemble dark comic drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Months after her daughter is murdered, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) takes out three unused billboards on a deserted road calling for an explanation for the lack of progress by the local police department. Her cry for the answers becomes a tale of violence and guilt as the entire town forms their own opinions.
There’s no denying that McDonagh knows how to write a witty, vicious line; his time in theatre and now in film has made him able to turn a phrase the likes of which would make Pinter or Tarantino blush, but his first film was small scale, and his second a flabby mess. Now he marries the two films with a furious, angry, and it results in an oddly emotional film that might be written and directed by a man but at its core features a juicy role for a lady.
It’s a textbook Frances McDormand role, perfectly written, delivered with stone-faced stoicism and a glint that show she’s a victim of experience and not of anything else. McDonagh has spoken of writing the role for McDormand and it’s impossible to think of anyone else better suited. Both writer-director and lead actress have no interest in making an Erin Brockovich style triumph over the bad men of the world story and instead, Mildred is a complex woman, guilt-ridden and not virtuous, stubborn and oblivious. It’s a near perfect meditation on how a person can do things for the right reason and yet go about it in a completely wrong way.
However, the bigger revelation is in the role of Sam Rockwell’s Jason Dixon, the racist impossibly stupid officer. Once again, Rockwell and McDonagh have no time to play around with the backwards racist cop cliche, and instead, opt to play him at first unlikeable but slowly build him to a more complex and likeable character, one who we come to understand.
Despite this, McDonagh does fall down by trying to pull the rug from under the audience’s feet too many times, which begins to feel like people are inconsistent. John Hawkes’ abusive former husband feels a little too thumbnail sketch, as does Abbie Cornish’s role, while the likes of Peter Dinklage fail to find a reason to be in the film, and the recurrent motif of McDonagh poking fun at people with height issues is a little mean-spirited. Woody Harrelson gets the material, and is able to turn the charm on with one flash of his eyes, turning the chief of police into a force for good, and is far more complicated than you would expect.
Coming back to movies after previous excursions back to the stage, McDonagh has made a better film than Seven Psychopaths but one which is far too long; the uneven tone seems to attempt to bring a universality to the film but instead seems a little more unsure of if it wants to be a black comedy or a drama. The violence, when it hits, is surprisingly hard-hitting, and the comedy is so broad that they at times don’t mesh.
All of that considered, the film is – much like its central character – a complicated meditation on grief, on loss and on what it means to have a point and to make it. Sometimes with humour, sometimes with violence, sometimes with a straight face, it’s a complex situation and one that seems even more important now with the spate of Hollywood allegations. This, in turn, makes it one of the most intriguing films that have been released in the past twelve months.
It might prove a little difficult for some, and for others, it’ll put them off, but as far as feminist filmmaking goes, this is what it means to present a woman as the centre of a film, flaws and all. With complexities and a beating heart that while cold, is not entirely unthawed. For its central performance, it’s supporting performance and its screenplay might just find Three Oscars Outside Ebbing, Missouri.