McDormand and Rockwell lead an impressive cast in Martin McDonagh’s latest, which tempers its black comedy with a surprising emotional punch.

Director: Martin McDonagh

Starring: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson

Country: UK, USA

Runtime: 115 mins

Release date: 12 January 2018

Who’d have thought a few billboards could cause so much trouble? Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), still looking for justice for her murdered daughter seven months on, rents the advertising space out on a side road that, according to Caleb Landry Jones’ billboard proprietor, only retards go down. Still, the red and black indictment of the local police has an incendiary effect, lighting a fire under little Ebbing. Tensions come bubbling to the surface, and seemingly the whole town pours boiling scorn on Mildred.

The latest from Martin McDonagh, playwright turned purveyor of richly inappropriate comedies, owes a lot to the Coens’ more meandering fare (A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis). But there’s a more cohesive core here than in those picaresque tales. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a twisted tour of small town America, with Mildred Hayes as our guide through all the prejudices and grudges that lie at its heart.

McDormand is terrific. She’s claimed John Wayne as an inspiration for her character, and there’s definitely something of the Old West gunslinger about Mildred. Fiery retribution tempered with a steely calm. And she does that thing that Wayne did, where just by existing in a space she lets everyone know she’s better than them.

Unlike many of Wayne’s characters, Mildred isn’t without her foibles. Ornery and crass, she’s driven by a blinding rage that she vents at anyone in her way. That includes Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the target of the billboards, which ask why there haven’t been any arrests for the rape and murder of a teenage girl; officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), borderline-racist manchild; Red Welby (Landry Jones), wheedling billboard manager; and pretty much everyone else in Ebbing, from the local priest to the local midget (Peter Dinklage).

Anyone familiar with McDonagh’s previous work will be well aware of the kind of wildly tasteless humour to be found here. McDonagh’s script overflows with casual racism, casual ableism, casual misogyny, and enough profanity to make Samuel L. Jackson blush. It’s equal opportunity mockery, and no one is safe. An apparently random monologue on Los Angeles’ Bloods and Crips morphs into a vicious, and hilarious, indictment of the Catholic church.

What distinguishes Three Billboards from the director’s other work is an unanticipated emotional core. As McDonagh and Mildred guide us through this darkly eccentric town as it spitefully turns on a grieving mother, what unfolds is a surprisingly poignant story of grief, acceptance, and redemption. Mildred is angry with the whole world after the death of her daughter, but McDormand expertly conveys the sense that she is angry most of all with herself. Sheriff Willoughby has terminal cancer, and Harrelson’s gentle performance shows us a man who has made peace with the world (a stark contrast to the wrathful Mildred). Dixon is a pathetic bully, but his character arc takes him on an unexpectedly redemptive journey.

Rockwell gifts us with Three Billboards’ other great performance. Dixon is a surly child in a man’s body. He’s seen reading the same kid’s comic throughout the film. He still lives with his coddling mother. He’s prone to violent tantrums. Yet, when the plot conspires to offer him real growth, Dixon grasps it with all his immature determination. Rockwell hasn’t been this good since Moon.

It doesn’t work out for Dixon as he expects, but then nothing in Three Billboards works out as expected. McDonagh’s previous films – In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths – had a puerile streak running through them. There’s a similar streak running through this, but it’s thin and broken at places by a surprising emotional punch. There are scenes, revelations, unspoken things which catch us off guard with upper cuts seemingly out of nowhere.

That’s not to say Three Billboards isn’t as funny as McDonagh’s last two films. There’s plenty of that inappropriate humour in evidence throughout; a surreal debate about the most appropriate way to refer to the torture of a black suspect springs to mind. But while the black comedy was the raison d’etre for McDonagh’s previous work, here it’s a frame to better highlight the tragedy.

Those enamoured with McDonagh’s peculiar brand of insensitive farce might find themselves disappointed by Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. There is still insensitivity and farce, but it plays second fiddle to deep character studies. Time will tell if this is McDonagh’s best film. For now, it’s certainly his most subtle, nuanced, and mature.



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