movie film review | chris tookey

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

© Fox Searchlight - all rights reserved
  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
8.18 /10
Frances McDormand , Sam Rockwell , Woody Harrelson
Full Cast >

Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Written by: Martin McDonagh

Released: 2017
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Length: 115

A quest for justice and vengeance becomes something else entirely.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

Bookmark and Share

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, pictured right) is a Missouri mother who advertises on three local billboards to question the efficiency and will of the regional police force, especially police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). It’s been months, and the cops have given up trying to solve the rape and murder of her teenage daughter.

The unique selling point of this terrific movie, however, is something else: another Oscar-quality performance from Frances McDormand – her finest since Fargo. Mildred is a blue-collar angel of vengeance and, of course, a woman of a certain age. It’s no wonder that she strikes a chord in the age of MeToo – where so many woman are seeking justice against the men who have oppressed them for too long. There are echoes, too, of the families who sought justice for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster.

According to Mildred, the Ebbing police force is “too busy goin’ round torturin’ black folks” to solve crimes. “I got issues with white folks too,” protests the most irredeemably racist of the cops, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, pictured left), who hammers home his message by throwing an innocent white man out of an upstairs window.

So far, so conventional. We’re going to find out who raped and killed the daughter, and those racist, do-nothing cops are going to get their come-uppance, right?

Er, wrong – and that’s where the film becomes really smart. It avoids the expected story arc and strikes out on one that celebrates the spirit of forgiveness as much as it does the (sometimes inevitably fruitless) search for justice.

Instead of ending up with a modern Death Wish, Michael Winner’s highly successful but spiritually ugly celebration of vigilante vengeance, we discover some ideas about justice, forgiveness and redemption that have been too long missing from cinema.

McDormand will rightly attract rave reviews and awards for a multi-layered performance that is both drily amusing and agonisingly heartfelt. She carries the audience with her despite making several choices along the way that border on the insane and homicidal. We discover that she shares at least some of the guilt for her daughter’s death, As she learns from her mistakes, so does the audience – I hope.

McDormand will rightly attract most of the rave reviews. But two of the main actors in the talented but clever-clever Seven Psychopaths, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, turn in the best supporting performances of their careers, finding nuances and depth in potentially caricature roles. Harrelson as the police chief is especially fine as he changes from pantomime villain to arguably the moral centre of the movie: a humanizing, humorous male presence in what might easily have been a fanatically humourless female vigilante fantasy.

As the police chief’s wife - Abbie Cornish (also from Seven Psychopaths) plays her role with a warmth and understanding of humanity that would have been out of place in either of McDonagh’s first two films, which were a hell of a lot more flashy than they were thoughtful.

There’s a new maturity in McDonagh’s third film, and he finds time to flesh out his minor characters in a way that is extremely welcome and sometimes becomes significant only in retrospect. The police chief’s fishing expedition with his wife and young daughters gains poignancy by what he does later that evening. Stick with me, McDonagh seems to be saying, and I’ll show you why I’m making time for this. It’s the antidote to all those movies that assume the audience has attention deficit disorder and can’t wait for the next fight and/or explosion.

Rockwell’s magnificent performance has been protested against by voices in the twittersphere and even some of the more stupidly blinkered critics, who seem to think racists are – or should be - irredeemable. I’m not going to spoil the storyline for you, but it is hardly true that Dixon’s racism goes unpunished, and it’s surely an interesting insight into villainy that some villains are less villainous than others, and may even be partially redeemable.

Be warned, however, that McDonagh has a fine ear for obscenity. Many foul words are spoken in anger. Much of the dialogue, stylistically, feels on a level with the best of Quentin Tarantino. But there’s genuine rage here, too. For me, this film has the freshness and irreverence that the Clash and Sex Pistols brought to Seventies punk rock. And the way that McDonagh’s darkly Irish sense of irony undermines all the usual structural cliches brings back pleasant memories of that great TV sitcom, Father Ted.

The film’s small-town setting is recognizably in the absurdist tradition of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and the Coen brothers’ Fargo, and it’s true that this movie lacks the visual poetry of both. McDonagh’s direction is somewhat lacking in finesse and cinematic scale, but I suspect that greater visual confidence will come with more directing experience. His work here is never less than competent, and he does a fine job of protecting his precious script from those who would have tried to turn it into more conventional Tinseltown product.

This is an astonishingly mature, compassionate, empathetic piece of work, one of the best and bravest to have reached our screens in the last twenty years. It is all the more remarkable for coming out of a very, very dark age in Hollywood. You can predict the arc of virtually every storyline that comes out of 21st century Tinseltown. It’s A wants B, A is prevented from achieving B, A finds fulfilment by achieving B.

This simple, ideological straitjacket has been vigorously marketed by Robert McKee and every other screenwriting hack/ guru. Unfortunately, it makes for films that are simplistic and untrue to real life, and have suffocated the life out of Hollywood creativity.

It’s the reason why so many movielovers are turning to the best television series and box sets. Three Billboards should give new hope to those who have given up on cinema as a medium for grown-ups.

Key to Symbols