Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 12 Jan 2018

Between them, brothers Martin and John Michael McDonagh have a pretty impressive track record when it comes to writing and directing. Martin McDonagh’s most recent project was Seven Psychopaths in 2014, though he is probably still most widely known for his debut, In Bruges. His latest, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, contains many of the elements we’ve come to expect from the younger McDonagh brother – primarily a dedication to carefully crafted, sometimes acerbic dialogue – crystallised into what is his best and most consistently impressive film.

Three Billboards… tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who lives in the titular town of Ebbing and is frustrated by the inability of the local authorities to bring anybody to justice for the murder of her daughter, Angela. Mildred channels her frustration into the renting of three billboards on a mostly unused stretch of road outside the town, which express her feeling in no uncertain terms. The billboards, and Mildred herself, quickly become famous among the townsfolk, and indeed the local media, bringing a number of disparate characters together.

Those characters are where Three Billboards… shines brightest. McDonagh’s films have hardly been starved for acting talent in the past, but this is certainly his most impressive cast. It’s a credit to the performances, and indeed the writing, that the vast majority of this large and talented ensemble feel like vital cogs in a well oiled machine, as opposed to being shoehorned in. At the head of everything, Frances McDormand is just wonderful, capable of evoking pathos, surprise and laughs in equal measure – much like the film as a whole. She gives Mildred exactly what the role requires: balance. We sympathise with her hugely, and are resolutely on her side, but not to the extent that she ceases to feel like a rounded, conflicted character. As the head of the local police force, Woody Harrelson is reliably great, with perhaps more of a gentle, affecting edge than we might expect from the opening scenes. Alongside him, Sam Rockwell (who was so good in Seven Psychopaths) is again on good form as disreputable cop Jason Dixon.

Three Billboards… is McDonagh’s most well-rounded, likeable piece of work

There are far too many names to mention individually, but crucially this isn’t because the film feels overstuffed. On the contrary, we want to spend more time with even the minor characters, because they’re played and written so convincingly. It inevitably means that characters like Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, so good last year in a not dissimilar role in Manchester By the Sea) and her ex-husband’s new fling Penelope (played with wit by Samara Weaving) are left mainly on the fringes, but that’s ok, because together they constitute a film that knows what it’s doing and has the confidence not only to let its cast breathe, but to edit them down where necessary. The film feels like it loves spending time with its characters, like McDonagh had a great time writing them, and this feeling transposes onto the audience.

What makes Three Billboards… McDonagh’s most well-rounded, likeable piece of work, is that the framework holding all those solid, well-written characters together feels delicately honed and precise; there is no fat on the bones of this film, and editor Jon Gregory deserves plaudits for keeping the whole thing moving while still allowing time for the script to indulge, in a good way, in its characters. There’s also a really well-chosen and effective soundtrack underlying all of this, which adds to the overall feeling of quality.

If there are missteps, they are so few and far between that they can be mostly ignored. One worth mentioning is that there are one or two facets to Officer Dixon (Rockwell) that don’t quite work, in particular a streak of racism that feels oddly out of place, most noticeably in a scene in a prison cell midway through, in which the N-word is invoked by two characters in a way that felt crass and misjudged. It’s a shame because the rest of the scene is beautifully put together.

That misstep feels like a too-obvious attempt by McDonagh to harness to hard-hitting writing style he’s (at least partially) known for, but ironically that talent of his is used to much better and more subtle effect in the rest of the film, which does contain lines here and there that can, in a positive way, draw gasps, laughs and surprises.

Three Billboards… feels like it was the ideal project to take Martin McDonagh to the next stage in his career, moving on from the well-written and well-played, but perhaps slightly indulgent, Seven Psychopaths. That film felt like it had a lot of very good elements strung together into something that didn’t entirely cohere, but Three Billboards… avoids that pitfall and then some. With a r oster of memorable characters, a cast on universally great form and a script that is frequently capable of wrong-footing its audience, there’s really very little to complain about.


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