The Watchers

The Watchers

Monday, 15 January 2018

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (UK Cert 15)

What would you do if a loved one died and the authorities were lax in their handling of the case? Would you complain to your local politican? Write letters? Or would you hire billboards in your town calling the police out on their inaction? For one grieving mother, that's exactly what she does in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a darkly comic drama written and directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths)

Eight months ago, Mildred Hayes' daughter Angela was killed in a truly horrific manner. However, the investigation has yet to turn up any credible leads. Tired of no progress in the case, Mildred decides to take matters into her own hands. Hiring three disused billboards on a mostly unused road just outside the town, Mildred puts up a stark message to the Ebbing police to induce them to solve Angela's murder. This sets her on a collision course with the police and other townsfolk who- whilst sympathetic to her plight- see the billboards as unneeded aggression. But Mildred's not backing down without a fight...

Frances McDormand plays Mildred with a mix of steely reserve and brittleness. Still grieving for the loss of her daughter, frustrated with any lack of progress, she sweeps through Ebbing like an avenging (or exterminating) angel, pushing buttons and putting people's backs up. And she could care less. She gives the local reverend short shrift when he comes to appeal to her to take the billboards down (in one of the strongest scenes of the film) and even defends herself against an angry dentist with a well-placed drill to the fingernail. Yet there are moments when the grief overtakes her and you genuinely feel for the character.  It's an absolutely superb performance from McDormand who- with the Golden Globe and Critics' Choice Awards already under her belt- is frontrunner to add a second little gold man to her mantelpiece come March. 

Woody Harrelson gives strong support as police chief Bill Willoughby, fighting Mildred's ire whilst dealing with his own personal tragedy. Whilst he's only in the film for the first half, his presence is felt throughout and he puts in a stoic, funny turn. Sam Rockwell is great as the dimwitted racist Officer Jason Dixon who butts heads with Mildred more than once. An arrogant drunkard momma's boy, Dixon swaggers through the town thinking he's untouchable- until even he crosses a line. It could easily be a one-note performance but there are layers to Rockwell's performance that elevate the character from just an archetypal racist hick. 

Lucas Hedges (so good in Manchester By The Sea) is similarly great as Mildred's son Robbie. Whilst dealing with his own grief, he must also look out for his mother as she wages her war of attrition against the cops, and- for me- gets one of the best one-liners in the film. Peter Dinklage puts in a decent turn as the lovelorn car salesman James, whilst John Hawkes appears fleetingly but powerfully as Mildred's violent ex-husband Charlie. There's also nice performances by Abbie Cornish as Bill's wife Anne, Caleb Landry Jones as billboard letter Red Welby, and Samara Weaving as Charlie's new, younger, dumber girlfriend. 

The script is ferocious, funny, and foul-mouthed, with some stingingly baroque insults thrown around. It touches on issues of race- Dixon is accused of having tortured a black suspect- but doesn't fully explore them (although that would make this a much different film). Whilst there isn't a feeling of definitive closure at the end of the film, there is a sense of an ending as Mildred and Dixon ponder their next moves. Ben Davis' cinematography is superb, especially with the evocative shots of the Missouri countryside- the opening shots of the derelict billboards wreathed in early morning mist is particularly striking- whilst Carter Burwell's spaghetti Western inspired score and a truly eclectic soundtrack (ranging from 'Chiquitita' to 'The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down') adds to the mood of the film. 

Well-acted, well-written, well-directed, it's not difficult to see why Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is hoovering up awards acclaim left, right, and centre. A powerful film. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


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