Irish playwright turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh has a great track record. His films including the black comedies In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. And now he gives us what is close to his best film yet, with the evocatively titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This acerbic and blackly funny drama tackles revenge, justice, family and the secrets of small town America. McDonagh has always melded violence and anarchic humour in his films, and this is no exception. With Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, he once again subverts our expectations.
The fictitious small town of Ebbing in Missouri provides the setting. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) feels disillusioned with the local police department and their lack of success in finding the man who raped and killed her daughter. In desperation, she approaches advertising agent Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) to hire the titular three vacant billboards outside town. She adorns them with a personal message for the police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), challenging him and his police force to do their jobs. Mildred is driven by a combination of grief, guilt and anger.
But the billboards have a divisive effect on the local townsfolk. In particular, they attract the ire of dim-witted and volatile deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon is an immature mother’s boy. He’s also an inveterate racist who has a history of torturing and beating up “people of colour”. Mildred’s teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) is still trying to come to terms with the horrific death of his sister. He becomes even more upset by the provocative billboards and the town’s reaction to them. Mildred however finds a reluctant ally in James (Peter Dinklage), a local car dealer who maybe expects more from her in return for his support.
McDonagh has written a brilliant screenplay. It features some crackling dialogue and politically incorrect characterisations; but also profound insights into the nature of loss, grief and the thirst for justice. He’s also assembled a strong cast to flesh out the characters, many of whom undertake a journey of self-discovery that changes their lives.
McDormand gives arguably her best performance since her Oscar-winning turn in Fargo two decades ago. She delivers a quietly powerful performance of suppressed rage and anger here. She’s deeply affecting as she also shows us Mildred’s vulnerabilities. She also swears like a trooper, and delivers some wonderful put-downs, but much of her dialogue is not for the faint-hearted. This is a well-rounded and three-dimensional character.
Harrelson is surprisingly mellow and understated here. He gives depth and gravitas to Willoughby, as the character is forced to confront one of his biggest failures. Rockwell has earned his stripes playing a gallery of eccentric characters but here he delivers one of his best performances yet. Australian actress Abbie Cornish plays Willoughby’s wife Anne, while John Hawkes plays Mildred’s abusive ex-husband Charlie.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a powerful and compelling drama, anchored by McDormand’s superb and abrasive performance.
Director: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Release Date: 1 January 2018
Rating: MA 15+
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television