Film review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), written and directed by Martin McDonagh
tl;dr: Worth waiting for because DAYUM, I can see why it won so many awards.
When I heard about this film, I instantly put it on the to-watch list. Martin McDonagh’s next film? Count me in! His films so far have been darkly funny and the dialogue sizzling and I absolutely love In Bruges. Didn’t end up seeing this film until recently, however, and it’s now the 152nd top rated film on IMDb. It won 130 awards and was nominated for another 230. Frances McDormand won the Best Actress Oscar, with Sam Rockwell winning Best Supporting Actor. And I can totally see why.
There are three dilapidated billboards on the roads outside the rural town of Ebbing in Missouri. Mildred (Frances McDormand), grieving her daughter Angela’s brutal and still unsolved murder some months previous, decides to buy the ad space to criticise the local police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for not having caught the killer.
The billboards don’t go down well with the locals. Police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is furious. Mildred’s son (Lucas Hedges) gets a hard time in school. Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the guy who sold the ad space, is threatened right in front of his assistant (Kerry Condon). Police even threaten to cause legal problems for Mildred’s friend Denise (Amanda Warren) just because they can.
Mildred’s crusade for justice lights both proverbial and literal fires in an otherwise sleepy town.
Like McDonagh’s previous outings the sense of humour is pitch black – just the way I like it – but as films go it’s not actually particularly funny. It’s furious. McDormand’s Mildred is rightfully fed up and angry that no progress seems to have been made at all in trying to find who committed the atrocious acts on her daughter. Sure, tough luck when there are no leads to follow, but I can see how galling it must be when it seems like they’re not even trying.
It’s a film that throws a few curve balls, but I won’t give any spoilers to what happens. There are several instances where I went “well, that’s something I didn’t expect”, but other people’s mileages may vary. The ending was unexpected. Not to give it away, but it was sort of … abrupt? That’s probably my only issue with it, in fairness. It ended too soon. I wanted to find out what happened next, and instead the film ended. Oh well. Always leave your audience wanting more, right?
McDormand is amazing, playing the rage bubbling below the surface so incredibly well. Rockwell’s character is a complete racist asshole, but he gets called out on it. I especially liked when Clarke Peters showed up to put him in place. Partly because his character came to put the place in order, and partly because it’s Clarke frickin’ Peters, a.k.a. Lester Freamon a.k.a. my favourite character on The Wire.
I may have enthused about series six of Ray Donovan on Instagram some time last year. (Followed by then enthusing about all the other series of Ray Donovan I subsequently watched, because it’s such a great show I can’t believe I’ve not seen it before?!) One of my favourite characters from it was played by Sandy Martin, and here she is again, playing Rockwell’s unpleasant mother!
There are plenty of people to recognise, in fairness. Peter Dinklage is sympathetic. Zeljko Ivanek is one of those actors who I instantly recognise but often can’t remember the name of, which is a shame because he’s good. John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex husband is another person I went “I’m sure I recognise him” but couldn’t place. His perky young girlfriend (Samara Weaving) was amusing too, and caused one of the laugh-out-loud scenes for me.
Abbie Cornish as Sheriff Willoughby’s wife is … twenty years younger than Woody Harrelson because yay Hollywood casting? Her character is a good testament to the fact that people don’t necessarily act the way you might expect them to in certain scenarios. People are shades of grey, and this film is quite good at expressing that. People don’t just act in a predefined, specific way when placed in certain circumstances, as films often disregard. In films event X happens, therefore character Y will obviously do action Z. Real life isn’t that clear cut. Sometimes event X happens, and character Y might consider doing action Z but decide to do something entirely different instead.
To stop myself from rambling even further, the film is touching, incredibly well acted, and I can’t wait to see what Martin McDonagh will cook up next. While this wasn’t as funny as I thought it might be, it’s probably all the better for it? I don’t know, but I think it’s a fantastic film.
5 out of 5 flower tubs.