An emotional and dark drama, with a great sense of humour
Directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film about a mother grieving after the murder of her daughter; and yet it's much more.
It's about the self-destructive nature of anger, and regret.
It's about racism and peoples inability to accept or tolerate horrific circumstances.
Most of all, it's about an intimate community dealing with everyday life, their relationships and dramas.
It's a film that juggles the darkest of subject matters with a genuine and deep-set humour. Combine this with some of the most dazzling performances of the year so far, and you have a film that's difficult to forget.
"Anger only begets more anger" says Charlie, Mildred's abusive ex-husband. Ironic for a man who obviously has serious anger issues himself, and yet anger – or at least the self-destructive nature of anger – is the biggest and most important recurring theme throughout the film. Both lead characters suffer from problems with anger that stem from profoundly different places. What makes Three Billboards, so interesting is we sympathise with them as people, despite the fact that they often display very unpleasant characteristics.
Frances McDormand (as Mildred), gives one of her finest performances to date. Grieving the murder of her daughter, angry at the preconceived inability of the local police force to solve her murder, and regretful of their last days together; Mildred decides to hire three billboards for a year, along the same stretch of road her body was discovered. After storming into the office of the company that owns the billboards, Mildred throws $5000 at Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) and hands him a note with the slogans for each billboard. They read:
"Raped while dying"
"And still no arrests?"
"How come, Chief Willoughby?"
The billboards split opinion. Whilst some people are very supportive, many are not; seeing them as a personal attack on Chief Willoughby, a very popular and respected police officer who has also been hiding (although most of the town seem to know) his battle with terminal cancer.
No one is more incensed than, Officer James Dixon.
Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell), also well-known around town doesn't carry the same level of respect as, Chief Willoughby. Dixon's reputation comes from his alleged torture of a black prisoner, being an alcoholic and still living with his officious mother (which is probably one of the reasons for his alcoholism). He does, however, idolise Willoughby and aspires to be like him.
Mildred and Dixon regularly come into conflict with one another, and It's Willoughby who plays the voice of reason; keeping both of these impulsive and obstinate personalities from doing anything too rash. The trio shares a really dynamic and difficult relationship, and it's only down to the brilliance of the three actors (McDormand, Rockwell and Woody Harrelson) and the writing that it never seems manufactured.
A sudden tragedy exacerbates the situation between these two and things deteriorate rapidly; acting as a catalyst for wildly extensive character arcs.
The extended cast is equally impressive, with seldom a foot put wrong. Abbie Cornish (as Anne), Chief Willoughby's wife, Caleb Landry Jones (as Red Welby) and Peter Dinklage (as James), a love-struck car salesman are all excellent and aptly showcase they're all facing their own demons. I feel a special mention should also be made to Samara Weaving for her role as Penelope (Charlie's 19-year-old girlfriend). Despite being a minor part, her bubbly and enthusiastic nature, coupled with her inappropriately timed interjections made me smile and brightened up some very dark moments during the course of the film.
The relationships between all the characters here seem organic and genuine. There's clearly an undisclosed history amongst the people going back many years. For the most part, we don't know the details; we don't need to know, because we believe it. One of my favourite scenes in the movie is when Chief Willoughby brings Mildred in for questioning after she assaults someone. He starts interrogating her. He puts on his best bad cop routine and is as authoritative as one would expect a seasoned police officer to be. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, he coughs up blood which splatters Mildred's face. Both are clearly shocked, and in an instant, the whole dynamic of the scene is flipped on its head. Willoughby is reduced to something like an apologetic, badly scolded child. Mildred becomes the comforting mother; holding Willoughby in her arms and assuring him that everything is alright. It's an incredibly tender scene, and these sorts of dynamic shifts are found throughout the movie. They showcase the films ability to seamlessly flip between different ambiences as and when it suits; keeping us guessing as to what might happen next.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a crime drama with a deeply distressing setting; a mother, desperately trying to galvanise the local police to solve her daughter's horrific rape and murder 7 months prior. And, yet, due to the superbly written understated and genuine humour found throughout, the film never feels as unbearable or dispiriting as it should. That's not to say it doesn't have heart-rending moments of intense emotional pain. It does, by the bucketful. It's just it never feels overdone or overbearing; it's genuine and heartfelt. The film – due to some excellent cinematography and writing, a great score and superb acting – tiptoes effortlessly between dark humour and utter despair and tragedy without ever making me want to stop watching.
Quite the opposite in fact, it hooked me from the first scene and still hasn't let go. I was so intrigued by the story and so invested in the characters that I couldn't stop watching; I didn't want to stop watching. It's a difficult balance to strike, and a difficult thing for a film to do, but Three Billboards – like Room before it – manages to get it absolutely perfect!