Following on from his previous directing credits, Martin McDonagh brings to life a new level of dark comedy that only works if you embrace the darkness of the humour. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the story of Mildred Hayes (Francis McDormand), a mother grieving over the death of her daughter, whose case still has not been solved. She takes out three old billboards and puts up signs saying “RAPED WHILE DYING” “STILL NO ARRESTS” and “WHY, SHERIFF WILLOUGHBY?” This is an act that does not sit well with many residents of Ebbing, Missouri, in particular Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), the hot-headed, incompetent racist cop who takes personal offence to the calling out of Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Everything begins to escalate as people in the community begin to take sides and shift the sympathy from the woman who lost her daughter, in favour of the police chief she is calling out. Three Billboards deals with tragedy, violence and how people handle grief with some gut busting humour that will leave you questioning the kind of person you are for laughing at it.
Shines is not a word one would use to describe Francis McDormand’s performance. She emulates a woman who has lost hope, no longer caring about anything or anyone, including her son (Lucas Hedges). This brilliant performance makes it difficult to like Mildred Hayes, you empathize with a grieving mother, but you don’t always like her as a character. She ignores her son’s pleas to remove the billboards; she fights back against any resistance including from the local priest and she grieves in her own way. Her abrasive nature leads to fascinating interactions between the slow-minded Dixon (particularly when she baits him), and the mild tempered Willoughby. As far as unlikable characters go, Sam Rockwell’s Jason Dixon might be leading the pack. His ignorance and violent nature makes him despicable, yet his lack of intelligence makes him perhaps one of the funniest characters in the movie. The way he is continuously baited by Mildred is the reason for so much of the humour. With the extreme nature of Hayes and Dixon, Woody Harrelson brings neutrality to the game with Chief Willoughby. His scenes with McDormand are more personal and emotional; despite their differences the two have a mutual respect. This is personified perfectly during their scene in the integration room of the police station after Mildred assaults the local dentist.
Throughout Three Billboards multiple themes are explored, but none is more impacting than the idea of an “us versus them” mentality between Civilians and Police. The police are not necessarily the bad guys, but they aren’t the good guys either, they are a grey force that appears unchallenged by the community until three billboards question their resolve. At its core Three Billboards is about grief and dealing with lose. We see different characters handle their loses through different ways, from seeking vengeance, to violent acts and even remaining oblivious to hide the pain. That’s what makes Three Billboards stand out, the understanding the grief affects everyone differently, but there is a right way and wrong way to go about it.
The ending of the film can lead to some uneasiness among the audience, you will be on board with it or you will leave feeling incomplete. McDonagh encapsulates the unsatisfactory nature with dealing with grief, sometimes the world does not resolve the way you would like, and so you create your own resolution. Given the fact that this movie is all about a mother dealing with her own grief, I believe the ending worked.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn’t necessarily an easy watch, often harsh in places, violent in others, with a dark sense of humour you know you should not laugh but can’t help it. The movie is darker than McDonagh’s previous movies, from its story even down to the style of humour he adopts. Which is saying something since he made a movie about a Hitman accidently killing a child. Lead by fantastic leads and backed by an incredible ensemble of supporting characters Three Billboards is an interesting insight into small town life, the role of law enforcement in society and the way we deal with loss.
If you are a fan of Martin McDonagh previous films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths then you will love this film.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Scores 9/10
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