Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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After watching this film, I can confidently say that I am a big fan of Martin McDonagh. He blends excellent performances, well-written dialogue and varied characters, with just a little bit of edgy humour on top. All that mixed in with his evident knowledge of framing, lighting and everything cinema cements him, in my opinion, as one of the best filmmakers working today. His third film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an absolute treat. It’s a film with a truly great story at its heart, elevated by the electric cast.

The basic premise is that Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is tired of waiting for the police to find the person who raped and killed her daughter, so she buys three billboards outside the fictional Ebbing, in Missouri, to turn their mind to it and to spite them a little. However, the police don’t appreciate this not-so-low-key form of libel. Events unfold, and that’s all I really want to say. Of the Oscar-nominated films I’ve seen so far, this is by far the best; granted Lady Bird and The Shape of Water are yet to be released here in the UK. Unlike the others I’ve seen, it doesn’t appear to be typical “Oscar-bait” in the slightest. Instead, Martin McDonagh aims to make the best, most entertaining and heartfelt film he can.

The opening sets the mood exceptionally well; very similarly to Darkest Hour with its use of a striking silence. And, as with Darkest Hour’s House of Commons scenes, McDonagh gets very creative with camera placement around the area with the three billboards. In fact, for a man with only three (excellent) feature films to his name, and who has spent most of his professional career in Broadway and The West End, McDonagh is incredibly good as a director. From subtle uses of handheld shots to create unease to a beautiful and hilarious long take of a man getting “justice” for his friend.

This film is arguably an ensemble piece, however, its overall cast is held up by a trifecta of stellar performances. Frances McDormand is an excellent lead, encapsulating the anger and emotion required for this (frankly jaded) grief-stricken single mother. I found one scene in particular with her and a poorly CGI-ed deer especially moving. I can’t say whether she deserves an Oscar as I haven’t seen any of the other candidates in their respective films; however, they’ll have to be particularly strong to beat her.

On the other hand, Woody Harrelson as Willoughby and Sam Rockwell as Dixon put in some of the performances of their lives. I spent the first half of the film thinking that it would be a crime if Woody Harrelson didn’t get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and in the second I thought the same for Sam Rockwell. If neither wins it I’ll be very disappointed, to say the least.  Woody Harrelson, in particular, brought in some serious emotion with the tragedy his character encounters.

The characters arc beautifully. You can certainly tell McDonagh is a Broadway and West End writer and the story itself kept an excellent pace throughout. There were a few times where I felt as if it was going to end and it didn’t, but the story was so gripping I didn’t really mind. McDonagh’s use of lighting is also worthy of note. Some scenes have the actors backlit, leaving only a dark silhouette. This, contrasting with typical key and fill lighting, showed the conflict within the characters. While this may mean nothing to most people, it certainly adds to McDonagh’s credibility as a man who creates depth and layers by employing cinema to its maximum effect.

I have to give this film four and a half stars. It has cemented my opinion that McDonagh is one of the best writers and directors working today and you’d only be cheating yourself if you didn’t see it, albeit I think In Bruges narrowly beats it when it comes to my favourite of his films. However, it is worth noting that the humour, language and violence may be a bit too brash for some people, and I’ve heard some people call it a misery flick.

Now, this is where the spoilers start. Watch this film, it’s incredible: now, let’s discuss anger, suicide and the cosmos!

It isn’t a misery flick, nor is it a tragedy. Sure, they never find the daughter’s killer, and Willoughby kills himself: and they’re both pretty big negatives. But I feel the story is more about the journey than the ends. The characters simply have engaging arcs. Willoughby describes the actions near the start of the film as like a game of chess: both sides of the conflict are trying to outplay the other and remain one step ahead. Yet by the end it’s boiled down to Dixon and Mildred deciding to go and kill someone they suspect of being a rapist – as an afterthought over the phone – but the next day on their way there not being particularly sure if they want to. Over the course of the film they’ve learnt to start taking things one day at a time.

The film comprises two key themes: anger, and the randomness of it all. The first is the least subtle. The word anger is thrown around about seven times per scene by the later stages of the film. “Anger only begets more anger” is the quote the characters keep reflecting at each other, and while that could be seen for most of the film – with the plot largely being propelled by cascading acts of fury – Dixon couldn’t have tried to change his ways and reconcile with the man he threw out of a window if Mildred hadn’t firebombed the police station he was in. Maybe this act of anger bringing reconciliation is a flaw in the narrative, or maybe it is Martin McDonagh showing that this world isn’t one of simple black and white morality.

The idea of anger only begetting more anger links strongly with the idea of, as the great Gary Oldman so eloquently put it, the “cosmic s**t-hammer”. Bad and unfortunate things happen to each of the characters: Willoughby getting cancer and his sudden suicide, Mildred’s daughter being raped and killed when Mildred could have stopped it by simply letting her borrow her car, Dixon being in the police station at the exact time Mildred decided to firebomb it and being put into hospital with the man he threw out of a window. These events culminate in the two main characters deciding that, when you consider how little control you have over the universe, maybe it is best just to take every day as it comes. They learn to settle for the fact that there isn’t as much space for hate in the world as there is for love. A fitting, if slightly sentimental, note on which to end this discussion about the best black comedy of errors since 2008.