When a new movie arrives in a haze of awards season fever, it can be hard to know what to expect. So many films seem specifically designed to pick up the coveted film industry gongs (Gary Oldman in a fat suit playing Churchill, anyone?) However, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri might have plenty of that buzz about it, but it certainly isn’t your standard awards bait. Unsurprising, given it’s the third feature film from Martin McDonagh, British playwright-turned-filmmaker behind the magnificent In Bruges and the more modestly successful Seven Psychopaths. While it’s by far the most grounded, serious, hard-hitting big screen work McDonagh has given us to date, it still has plenty of the distinct sensibility – and, more to the point, the distinct sense of humour – that has defined his body of work thus far. It also boasts one of the most impressive contemporary ensembles you could ask for, all of whom are at the top of their game.
Academy Award® winner Frances McDormand is Mildred Hayes, a middle-aged, working class single mother based, as you might have guessed, just outside the small Missouri town of Ebbing. Her humble home overlooks a quiet stretch of road on which stands a trio of old billboard signs which have been disused for decades, but not long after we meet her Mildred locates the local company who own the signs, and makes a deal with manager Red (Caleb Landry-Jones) to hire them out. The new posters spell out a succinct but blunt message to local law enforcement – specifically Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) – that more needs to be done to track down those responsible for the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter Angela some seven months earlier. Naturally, this action causes quite a stir, and doesn’t go down too well with most of the local cops, in particular the dim-witted and belligerent Dixon (Sam Rockwell). New leads in the case might not seem forthcoming, but it doesn’t take long for underlying tensions within the community to come bubbling to the surface.
Anytime we see a movie centred on a murder case with cops among the central protagonists, it’s easy to assume we’re going to get a great detective story, in which skilled investigators tirelessly piece together the evidence and struggle against the odds to grant us all a clean, cathartic resolution. This is absolutely not what we get from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Nor, as we might otherwise assume, is this necessarily a revenge movie; yes, McDormand’s Mildred has been wronged and seeks retribution, and some violence may occur along the way, but this is not at all the focus of the film. Instead, McDonagh presents us with the sad reality that faces so many bereaved souls, and for that matter so many members of law enforcement: sometimes, the leads and the evidence simply aren’t there, and there’s little to no chance of justice being done. Then of course, there’s the ever more difficult question of whether seeing the guilty parties found and convicted could ever be enough to ease the pain of such a loss.
All of this makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri sound like it’s nothing but wall-to-wall misery. However, while it makes for gruelling viewing at times, for the most part it’s a surprisingly upbeat, optimistic and humorous film. To address the humour first, McDonagh’s existing films have long since demonstrated his understanding of that simple truth that the best of us accept before we reach double digits: it’s big, clever, and really really funny to swear. McDormand’s Mildred alone would put a shipload of sailors to shame with the level of profanity that comes pouring out of her mouth, and this is absolutely key to making her an endearing character; anyone who crosses her will not be spared a barrage of four letter words, be they law enforcement, local news media or clergy. But it’s not just pure, unmitigated anger fuelling Mildred. She has a tremendous sense of fun about her, and – in spite of all the bad things that have happened to her, not limited to her daughter’s death – an innate sense of hope. She doesn’t just put up the billboards to stick it to the man, but because she still has faith that the killer can be found and justice can be served.
Nor, despite initial appearances, does the film present Mildred as being entirely in the right, and the cops entirely in the wrong. Seeing Harrelson in another cop role, you’d be forgiven for expecting a repeat of his turn in True Detective, but Willoughby is way over the other end of the spectrum; an affable, well-meaning family man, who it turns out has some major problems of his own on top of that one big unsolved case. Rockwell’s Dixon, on the other hand, seems to fit far more comfortably into textbook bad cop territory: a violent, bigoted idiot who takes his badge to be a licence to do whatever he wants. However, even here some grey area can be found. What makes the film so intriguing and moving is how it suggests that people who start out hating one another might learn to make peace and let the grudges of the past die. Crucially, it does so without ever getting syrupy, or implying that such transitions will be in any way easy.
Again, the key strength of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the exceptional cast. On top of the three leads, we have great supporting turns from John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s devoted wife, and a small but significant role for Peter Dinklage. Genre fans will be pleased to see Caleb Landry-Jones moving on to ever meatier roles in the wake of Get Out, and there’s even an amusing supporting turn from Samara Weaving of Mayhem and The Babysitter.
I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it does indeed score big at all those glitzy awards shows – but Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri deserves to be seen because it’s an intensely human work, offering no simple answers but suggesting potential paths to a less troubled future. Plus it shows a 60 year old woman kicking a couple of snarky teenagers in the crotch, and who can’t appreciate that spectacle?
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is out in UK cinemas on 12th January, from 20th Century Fox.