Sometimes all you need is a simple, well-written story, and great actors to make it come alive. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, by director/writer Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) is a drama with memorable lines and dark humour about a woman who wants justice, an officer who cares too much and a corrupt policeman who craves respect.
After 7 months with no developments on the case of her daughter’s murder, Mildred (Frances McDormand) puts up three billboards with a stingy message directed to the town’s police and, in particular, to chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Willoughby, himself with his own problems (he is dying of cancer and the entirety of his police force seems to be made of racist and homophobic men), takes it to heart, and tries to find new clues – anything really – that could help them solve the mystery. Meanwhile, officer Dixon (a barely recognisable Sam Rockwell) finds the billboards offensive and tries his worse to shut up Mildred.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a story about guilt. Mildred has her own guilt (she feels responsible for what happened to her daughter, as we find out in a disturbing flashback). Willoughby feels guilty for not being able to help Mildred, and for becoming a burden to his wife and family. And Dixon… Dixon’s character arc has him starting as an insolent, abusive momma’s boy who uses his little power to cause grievance to those around him, and ends with him using his own flaws to a better good,. McDonagh doesn’t shy away from presenting all tones of moral grey, creating thus a complex narrative that shows how people – real people – behave in extreme, impossible situations. McDormand, in what is her best performance up to date, plays tough and tender, sarcastic yet vulnerable, showing a mother helpless to find the only answer that matters – but, the film dares to ask, does it really, really, matter, in the end? Will revenge sort the pain? Is there a real need for a guilty part being punished? By justice or by her own hands?
Shying away from easy answers or resolutions, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is full of exquisite dialogue moments – one of the greatest between two rabbit slippers. Willoughby – who goes from being the “evil” policeman to everyone’s guardian angel – has the strongest scene, completely unexpected, showing McDonagh’s command of rhythm and timing. Nothing is too predictable or soppy – and it would have been so easy to make this a cheap melodrama. It has all the ingredients: cancer, domestic violence, rape, racism, violence, and a dwarf (Peter Dinklage and his moustache, playing a potential love interest, ladies and gentlemen!)
The waves that, much to the dislike of most town folk, Mildred started with her three billboards, soon build up to tsunami size, and her quest to have justice made to her daughter’s memory – with so many dragons slew on the way – are framed with a gentle, very-Deakins for the Coen brothers quality by Ben Davis (Guardians of the Galaxy; Avengers: Age of Ultron) and scored by usual Coen brothers collaborator Carter Burwell. And most likely this film will send an Oscar to one of the Coen’s home shelves. Next to those rabbit slippers. Just sayin’.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was on UK cinemas from 12th January 2018