Martin McDonagh, the writer-director behind madcap capers In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, is back and as extreme as ever. Want to see Frances McDormand drill a hole into a dentist’s thumb? Or firebomb a police station? Then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is for you.
Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is angry. Understandably so. Her daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), was murdered seven months previously, and local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) seems to have all but given up trying to solve the crime. What is Mildred to do? There’s nothing else for it – hire out the three huge advertising billboards on the outskirts of their small town, choose her words wisely, and paste up posters. Catching the attention of Willoughby and his eager-but-ignorant sidekick Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Mildred’s message starts to hit the headlines, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of some of her neighbours. How far will she go to really get the action she wants and deserves?
With a strong supporting cast (Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, John Hawkes, and everyone’s favourite Game of Thrones star, Peter Dinklage), McDonagh behind the wheel, and McDormand leading the charge, it’s no surprise Three Billboards has already bagged 57 award wins, including four Golden Globes.
What really sets Three Billboards above and beyond the rest is the story it tells. While it’s laugh-out-loud funny, incredibly violent, and superbly entertaining, the narrative revolves around a grieving mother and how angry she is. She’s understandably angry at the way her daughter died; angry at the police force for doing very little to support her; angry at herself, for things said between her and Angela before her untimely death. She’s angry at her ex-husband (Hawkes) for upping and leaving the family, pre-murder, choosing his young girlfriend over their family. She’s angry at her neighbours and fellow townspeople for quickly forgetting about Angela. She’s pissed. She has every right to be.
Grief is a universal feeling; we can all recall a time of grieving, for whatever reason. It’s a popular theme for film narratives, too – most recently, Kenneth Lonergan‘s Manchester By The Sea for one. But while Lonergan deals with grieving in an almost melodramatic sense, Three Billboards is different. What we see is a passion, a drive to Mildred’s anger, and a lot of that is aimed at Harrelson’s Willboughby, with the pair facing off against one another more than once. Although Mildred’s internal fire rages on, there seems to be an almost kind understanding between the pair of them, an understanding which is then undermined by trigger-happy, fist-swinging Dixon. At times, the length of the violence is truly astounding, especially in a very real-life setting like Ebbing’s town centre. But it still manages to be funny – mark that down to McDonagh and his keen eye for laughs.
Contrasting the funny, Three Billboards gives the audience moments of reflection, of sadness, and alongside the theme of grief, forgiveness, with every character attempting to redeem themselves for past wrongdoings in one way or another. McDormand and Harrelson are brilliant together and apart, but huge applause must be given to Rockwell as Dixon, an easy character to hate, despite his simplistic charm. The climatic last third and his almost-redemption are nearly enough to like him.
Three Billboards goes where others haven’t been in a while, and shows us that there are other sides to grief, beyond the tears. If there’s one character we should all aim to emulate in 2018, it’s Mildred – angry, proud, determined…but maybe don’t attack your dentist or set fire to your local police station.
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