Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017/18)
Director: Martin McDonagh
Screenwriter: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges, Željko Ivanek, Caleb Landry Jones
Frances McDormand’s Mildred hires three billboards outside of the small town of Ebbing, Missouri to call into question the work of Woody Harrelson’s local Sheriff Bill Willoughby and his band of cops headlined by the child-like Dixon (Sam Rockwell) as regards the unsolved sexual assault and murder of her daughter. What ensues is a part Western, part biblical redemption story told in screenwriter-director Martin McDonagh’s now signature darkly humorous tone; a film that explores righteous and all-consuming anger through the use of a comedic sensibility that will make you gasp as you laugh – a funny but altogether more heartbreaking movie headlined by a sensational ensemble cast.
McDormand turns in her best performance since Fargo as a battle-hardened woman consumed, driven and poisoned by anger towards the loss of her daughter. The actress’s commitment to Mildred’s profanity filled dialogue gifts the character an honesty that is learned to be appreciated as she is unveiled, and McDormand’s beautifully subtle portrayal of a fragility that underlines the outwardly aggressive and unforgiving character shines through to the screen like a beacon of hope that Mildred isn’t too far gone to be able to live again, to be able to move past her own guilt. McDormand is, of course, an actress of enormous quality whose work is comparable to that of the very best, and in Three Billboards she is certainly at the top of her game, providing a tour-de-force performance that strikes the right tone in both drama and in comedy.
The director of Three Billboards, Martin McDonagh, assists this standout aspect of the film by centring his lens on the performance in such a manner that it celebrates the most minute details of it, lingering for just long enough to see the anger replaced by fear and/or sadness in many a confrontation, emphasising McDormand’s incredible work and planting seeds of redemption in every increasingly questionable move – this is in a woman who publicly posts defamatory comments regarding a man dying of cancer in the full knowledge that he is, indeed, dying from the disease. Of course, the idea of redemption has become the centrepiece of McDonagh’s writing and the very nature of his gasp-as-you-laugh style, providing an underlying reassurance that every character is redeemable by plot, and that humanity is ultimately good. Sam Rockwell’s racist, childish police officer Dixon is perhaps the best example of this as regards Three Billboards, as his character grows from a buffoon of a man to one of the more honourable and perhaps righteous of all the characters. We see Dixon become good, at least in the skewed perspective of the film’s Western-movie universe, but we know there’s potential for this redemption very early on, and that is brought about by fantastic screenwriting from a filmmaker who never seems afraid of pitting similar forces of good and evil against one another; a director who relishes the opportunity to have a questionable favouritism towards one character’s perspective over another’s.
Unsurprisingly, Rockwell fulfils the obligation of presenting each side of his character with the same flair that we’ve seen from him in the past, only this time anchoring his every move in the underlying complications of the character’s life and the film’s small-town setting. Rockwell, whose contributions to cinema across the years have often been overlooked despite being of a regularly tremendous quality, seems likely to get his due for this performance throughout awards season, a deserved period of appreciation for an actor who simply takes your breath away in this film.
Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones and Željko Ivanek make up the majority of the film’s supporting cast, with each of them unfortunately being given little room to breathe their own life into the feature in any way other than to enhance the unusual qualities of the central threesome of McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson. It is typical of McDonagh or, indeed, any film of the independent roots of Three Billboards to try and fill a movie with as many recognisable names as possible, but other than in being present, many of the above-mentioned names seem lost to the greater goings on of the film, almost as if interchangeable despite being solid in what is demanded of them. It is perhaps to be expected then that it is only through Harrelson that McDormand and Rockwell are given a run for their money as regards their outstanding performances, with the long established actor offering a much more vulnerable characterisation than his cohorts, notably stepping into a realm of softness that seems far removed from many of the roles we’ve seen him fill before; most notably in his previous work with McDonagh in Seven Psychopaths. As is the case with McDormand and Rockwell, Harrelson is spurred on by a deep character arc that comes to bullet point the movie with key story beats, and it is through the creative way in which McDonagh does this that the film begins to take on an altogether more poetic quality; one that emphasises the picture’s under-arching biblical themes regarding morality and provides the picture its screenwriting signature – that of hinting at the ending of the film long before it comes.
As a collective, the Three Billboards cast and crew have developed a film that ponders a lot of questions and is filled with a lot of heart. Their collective efforts towards establishing a tone that is as charcoal black as humour can get, reaps rewards beyond that of a usual dark comedy, and McDonagh’s writing vitally uses this tone to open up a conversation regarding conservative America without patronising it or presenting it villainous in the typical sense, helping to open up an understanding – albeit an idealistic one – of the people of America’s lost towns and communities; the heartlands of Trump’s America. As a result, much has been made of the film’s political standing and the manner through which it can be viewed as reinforcing even the most dangerous of right-wing agendas, but the reality seems to be more that this is a filmmaker asking his audience a question as regards our own prejudices, a story that brings our own morality into the picture; McDonagh asks questions, he doesn’t necessarily answer them. In terms of politics, it would seem that McDonagh likes to leave as much unsaid as his characters do in this screenplay, that his focus is on having the film be read as you wish for it to be read as opposed to how he dictates it to you; an aspect of his style that seems to be echoed in the way he presents his stories visually.
McDonagh has never been a director who likes to emphasise that the camera is present – perhaps an overstay from his days directing theatre – nor has he ever made films as visually wondrous in the typically artful sense as some other awards season contenders this year (2018), but he has always had a keen eye for performance-driven, un-invasive visual artistry that cuts at the right time and brings the best out of his outstanding written work. In Three Billboards, McDonagh is emphasising what’s within the frame in a way unlike anyone in the current landscape, respecting the screenplay and appreciating the actors above all else, bringing out largely important (but often physically minute) moments of quality that can often go overlooked. His visual work, from the very foundations of the movie that indicate it to be an old-fashioned Western tale of an outlaw wreaking havoc, to the moments of situational comedy that hit a strike on every single turn, are therefore perhaps underappreciated aspects of his filmmaking repertoire, though they remain indicative of a well-planned creative mind confident in his own artistic abilities. As a director, McDonagh seems on the surface at least to lack a visual flair, but with Three Billboards it seems clear that this is not the case, and that the director is quietly presenting some incredible visual work underneath the absurdly funny and dark written material that is the most striking part of this presentation and indeed his entire ouevre.
In hiring Carter Burwell (a partner of the Coen Brothers – themselves genre inflecting directors with a leaning towards dark comedy) to write the score for Three Billboards, director McDonagh also helped to bring an off-kilter Western sound to his movie, reinforcing the very nature of pairing his darkly humourous work with that of the oldest genre, as well as helping to emphasise the unusual characters at the very centre of the piece. It was a tactic that, much like his own visual style, worked to underline the very best aspects of what was on show despite being less obviously standout than the truly gripping aspects of the film. In many ways, the score was perhaps the biggest indicator as to the film’s understated mastery; an intricate design meant to slowly bleed into your subconscious.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri was, then, a standout of the year as regards performance, with Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell stealing the show from the picture’s sensational screenplay which in of itself should not be overlooked or under-praised. It is, however, in the smaller and more intricate details of the film – such as the pacing of its cuts and how the film sounds – that Three Billboards truly gets under your skin, bringing a deep sense of empathy to this incredibly well constructed modernisation of the Western. Perhaps the biggest test for this film will come under the scrutiny of multiple viewings, as whether its story of twists and turns will be quite as worthy of investment the second time around (given its tough subject matter and almost academic precision) remains to be seen. For first time viewers however, Three Billboards offers a unique viewing experience built from the strengths of its screenplay and dashed with flavour by its performances. It is the type of film that fans of McDonagh, or even the Coen Brothers – themselves sharing similar talents for presenting darkly humorous movies with dictatorial precision – will enjoy immensely, and is of such a high quality that it’s bound to satisfy less invested cinema goers too.