The Verse’s Oliver Pendlington reviews Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017).
Director: Martin McDonagh
Screenplay: Martin McDonagh
Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage
Story: Grieving mother Mildred Hayes (McDormand) rents out three billboards on the outskirts of her town to question why the police have not solved the brutal murder of her daughter. Her actions soon receive attention from all the locals, including police chief Bill Willoughby (Harrelson).
Three Billboards, Martin McDonagh’s latest black comedy, has had the honour of opening this year’s CineCity film festival. Judging from the applause it garnered, it has already sealed its place as one of the best films of this year. From the opening that unveils Mildred’s plan to its unexpected ending, it will likely be talked about for years to come. McDonagh has crafted a hilarious and heart-breaking film that touches upon numerous themes, very much in the same vein as his previous films; In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.
Perhaps McDonagh’s greatest skill is how he lets the visuals tell the story. Ebbing is a tiny run-down town, with locals who wouldn’t be too far removed from a Coen Brothers film such as Fargo. (Which must have been a key inspiration for this film.) Its landscapes convey a sense of bewildering beauty, that contrasts with the ugly tensions stimulated by Mildred’s actions. Consequently, this is a film that strongly relies on visual metaphors to express its themes, a stark contrast to modern blockbusters that spout out reams of expositional dialogue. The film’s colour palette convey anger and guilt, from the bright red Mildred chooses to paint on the billboards, to the dreary blue clothes she mostly wears. More filmmakers should consider McDonagh’s style as a lesson in how to create stories through environments and objects.
Of course, that’s not to say the dialogue isn’t important in telling the story. The superb acting of the brilliant cast convincingly brings this well-written film to life. Woody Harrelson brings nuanced warmth as the well-respected veteran police chief, who quietly sees the good in everyone around him. Meanwhile, Sam Rockwell’s amazing turn as bigoted deputy Jason Dixon has the strongest character arc. He gradually matures from a horrible racist to a sympathetic underachiever who just wants to prove himself. However, the standout star is naturally Frances McDormand as Mildred, a bereaved and cantankerous matriarch determined to avenge her daughter. It is hard to imagine anyone else being grief-stricken in one scene to spouting out comical obscenity-filled insults the next. It is her best role since Fargo and one that all awards ceremonies should consider.
McDonagh toys with our expectations and throws in many plot twists that completely change the narrative. We laugh and cry with these characters because their actions are completely unpredictable. This is most evident during a pivotal scene where Dixon makes a discovery that could provide hope for Mildred after all. The finale ends with a wonderful ambiguity, rather similar to the classic Casablanca. We are left satisfied yet curious, wondering what these characters will do next.