Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage

You can have justice or you can have peace.

The people of Ebbing, Missouri want peace. Several months after the brutal rape and murder of local teen Angela Hayes (Robyn Newton), the investigation by Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has turned up no suspects, and the small town has more or less returned to its usual sleepy rhythms.

Willoughby wants peace. He’s certainly sorry for Angela’s death, but he has his own surfeit of problems to deal with: an alcoholic, violence prone deputy (Sam Rockwell) for one thing; his own terminal prostate cancer for another. He’d much rather spend the good time left to him with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and two young daughters.

Angela’s mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand) wants justice.

Wracked with guilt over her last argument with Angela before the girl left the house for the final time and burning with righteous, unquenchable fury, Mildred hits upon the idea of renting three dilapidated billboards near the site of Angela’s murder and posts three giant signs: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests?”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”. The signs soon become the talking point of the town, setting off a chain of events that sees the volatile, driven Mildred face off against… well, pretty much everyone she crosses paths with.

Playwright turned director Martin McDonagh is no stranger to dark material – his previous films include In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, after all. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, however, may just be his masterpiece: a blackly hilarious meditation on the cost of anger that will have you howling with laughter from minute to minute, while at the same time never allowing you to forget the terrible tragedies that underpin the narrative.

It’s incredibly deftly written; at first the dramatic oppositions seem fairy obvious, with McDormand’s Mildred our obvious point of identification as she battles small town apathy and the lazy police force who have failed her, and it’s a lot of fun seeing her go over the top on all and sundry, a foul-mouthed, indomitable straight shooter who refuses to take no for an answer. Gradually, however, we get to see the damage her anger is doing to those around her, the way her refusal to compromise is doing more harm than good. It’s all self-loathing turned outwards, just a rather ostentatious acting out rather than anything proactive. McDormand is simply incredible in the role, and no doubt will be looking at an Oscar nomination.

Her opposite number isn’t Harrelson’s Willoughby, who turns out to be the voice of reason more or less, but Sam Rockwell’s Jason Dixon, an incompetent cop with his own anger issues. Initially presented as a fairly uncomplicated antagonist figure – he’s painted as a racist who is known for torturing a black suspect at some point in the recent past – we slowly get more insight into his life as the film progresses, seeing his pitiful home life with his alcoholic mother (Sandy Dixon), and gradually our sympathies shift.

That’s the biggest strength of Three Billboards: its refusal to follow the easy path when it comes to audience identification, forcing us to both question and trust our powers of empathy by turn, shifting our focal point and deepening our understanding until we wind up – without giving too much away – in a place very far from where we started, but one that makes perfect sense when we look back at the path we’ve taken. It’s a bravura piece of work, direction and script working in perfect tandem, to the point where it’s actually difficult to describe without falling into gushing hyperbole.

Our three principals aside, McDonagh has assembled a great cast who get to do great things with the dialogue and characters he’s crafted for them: Peter Dinklage as an alcoholic car salesman who courts Mildred, Caleb Landry Jones as the advertising agent whose three crappy billboards are suddenly valuable again, Željko Ivanek as Willoughby’s level-headed sergeant, John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, and a very funny turn from the increasingly ubiquitous Samara Weaving as his new, much younger, girlfriend. It’s a fairly large ensemble and every actor brings their A game to sketch their characters quickly and indelibly in the time afforded them.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is simply an incredible film, hands down, centered on a stunningly good performance by McDormand but not wholly dependent on it – every element moves and functions perfectly, resulting in an early contender for best movie of the year.

TRAVIS JOHNSON

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