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Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

threebillboards-posterSome movie titles are too good to resist. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of those arresting, unwieldy names that you can’t pass up. Like the titular billboards, it’s a showstopper. Oftentimes a film can’t live up to its title, or a title for a superlative film is prosaic and marketable. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a character-driven dark comedy that delivers what it advertises, with Frances McDormand on top.

Grieving mother Mildred Hayes (McDormand, Hail, Caesar!) rents three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, asking why Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, The Glass Castle) has not made any arrests for the murder of her daughter. This garners the town’s attention, and upsets Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, TV’s F is for Family), who is more than slightly bad at his job.

Martin McDonagh’s (Seven Psychopaths) third feature is his first not to star Colin Farrell, and his first naturalistic screen drama that doesn’t rely on hitmen or a generalised over-the-topness. That is not to say that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri does not have a distinct voice; if Mildred is not a memorable character, the movie isn’t being watched correctly.

McDormand herself is new to the McDonagh milieu, but she makes it her own. This is a woman whose pain is unimaginable, and yet she remains the woman that she was before tragedy struck. There are depths to Mildred that the movie doesn’t plumb, and it doesn’t need to. Far from being a broad portrait of a vulgar Midwestern woman, McDormand commits herself to a three-dimensional role, and she marches it across the screen in a boilersuit worn in almost every scene she’s in. She’s ably assisted by Rockwell, who receives a wild — and slightly outlandish — arc of his own. One can almost forget what the man has done before the main events of the film even start, but his acts inform and haunt the movie to the end.

McDonagh has a sensitivity to his touch, but also a habit for pressing the buttons of his characters to the limit. Harrelson in particular has a scene in an interrogation room that goes a long way towards squandering the reserves of sympathy that the earlier portions of the film had spent building up; Willoughby turns in an instant, and Harrelson is able to rein him in. It’s a fine piece of acting from a returning member of McDonagh’s troupe.

McDonagh ties all this together with picturesque cinematography of North Carolina standing in for the titular Missouri. Location shooting lends to the feeling that Ebbing is lived in, and that its people — outside of the “fat dentist” — are not merely stooges to be mocked. McDonagh’s eye is one for pathos rather than sentiment, and he’s never afraid to balance profanity-laden outbursts against simple quiet moments.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes a point of offering no answers, easy or otherwise. As a character study it’s near masterful, and as an examination of one brand of small town America you could never tell that it was written by an Irish-British playwright (and multiple Tony award nominee and Olivier winner). When one is asked what they want out of a movie that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the pre-existing genres, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the film they don’t know precisely that they’re thinking of. Perhaps they won’t remember the title, but they’ll remember the feeling: McDonagh and McDormand’s combined rage, passion and humanity, writ large across the silver screen.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opened in Australian cinemas on January 1, 2018.

Directed by: Martin McDonagh.

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage and Addie Cornish.