Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Martin McDonagh
Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Sandy Martin, Kerry Condon, Samara Weaving, Alejandro Barrios, Zeljko Ivanek, Amanda Warren, Clarke Peters, Brendan Sexton III, Nick Searcy.
Irish playwright turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh has a great track record, with his films including the brutally funny and bleak black comedy In Bruges with Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes and Colin Farrell; and Seven Psychopaths. And now he gives us what is close to his best film yet, with the wonderfully and evocatively titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, an acerbic and blackly funny drama about revenge, retribution, justice, family and the secrets of small town America. A filmmaker with a strong original vision, McDonagh has always melded violence and subversive, anarchic humour in his films, and tempers his dark themes with moments of black comedy. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is no exception, and he once again subverts our expectations by taking the material in unexpected directions.
The film is set in the fictitious sleepy small town of Ebbing in Missouri. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, in arguably her best performance since her Oscar winning turn in Fargo two decades ago) is disillusioned with the local police department and their lack of success in finding the man who raped and killed her daughter. In desperation she approaches advertising agent Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones, cast against type) to hire the titular three vacant billboards outside town. She adorns them with a personal message for the police chief Willoughby (a sympathetic Woody Harrelson), challenging him and his police force to do their jobs. Mildred is driven by a combination of grief, guilt and anger. Willoughby is dying of pancreatic cancer, but does his best to appease Mildred.
But the billboards have a divisive effect on the local townsfolk. In particular, they attract the ire of dim-witted and volatile deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy and racist who has a history of torturing and beating up “people of colour”. A bully with a badge and power, Dixon still lives at home with his unrepentantly racist, nasty, chain-smoking mother (Sandy Martin), whose regressive attitudes have poisoned his outlook.
Mildred’s teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, from Manchester By The Sea, etc) is still trying to come to terms with the horrific death of his sister, and becomes more upset by the provocative billboards the town’s reaction. Mildred also finds a reluctant ally in James (Game Of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage), a local car dealer who maybe expects more from her in return for his support.
The film is brilliantly written with some crackling dialogue, politically incorrect characterisations, and some profound insights into the nature of loss, grief and the thirst for justice. McDonagh has assembled a strong cast to flesh out the characters, many of whom undertake a journey of self-discovery that changes their lives.
McDormand delivers a quietly powerful performance of suppressed rage and anger in a role written especially with her in mind. She is deeply affecting and creates a well-rounded and three-dimensional character that also shows us Mildred’s vulnerabilities. She also swears like a trooper here, and delivers some wonderful putdowns, but much of her dialogue is not for the faint hearted. Harrelson is surprisingly mellow and understated here and delivers one of his better performances. Rockwell has earned his stripes playing a gallery of eccentric characters (The Green Mile, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, etc) but here he delivers one of his best performances yet as the unlikable Dixon, who eventually becomes more sympathetic.
Mixing gruff pragmatism with a hint of tenderness, Harrelson gives depth and gravitas to his conflicted and terminal Willoughby, who is forced to confront one of the biggest failures of his career. Australian actress Abbie Cornish plays Willoughby’s much younger but sympathetic wife Anne, while John Hawkes plays Mildred’s abusive ex-husband Charlie, who urges her to take down the billboards. Nick Searcy, as a local priest, Samara Weaving, and Amanda Warren round out the cast.
The film has been nicely shot by cinematographer Ben Davis (Seven Psychopaths, etc), who, along with Israeli production designer Inbal Weinberg, gives us a strong sense of place for the fictitious setting.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a powerful and compelling drama, anchored by McDormand’s superb and abrasive performance. This tough but compelling drama is sure to be one of the hot favourites at the 2018 Oscars.