Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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From its writing to its acting, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri deserves its recent hype. You can’t help but feel a glimmer of hope for this downbeat community by the end.

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After triumphantly winning a whole host of accolades (including Best Picture – Drama) at this year’s Golden Globes, Martin McDonagh’s latest project, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is finally reaching British shores with high expectations. Alongside a group of actors that will be recognisable to those familiar with McDonagh’s previous work (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), the British director has stuck to what he does best here – delving into a gritty, crime-ridden world to give a voice to the usually unheard.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri follows the goings on of a pessimistic community in an isolated town. The drama centres particularly on a woman named Mildred (Frances McDormand), a grieving mother who takes matters into her own hands by purchasing three unused billboards on the outskirts of town to make a statement to the local police force who have forgotten about the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. Her anger is directed largely at Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a family man who seems to have not deliberately neglected the case, but instead been side-tracked by personal medical issues. The real villain, as such, is Willoughby’s colleague Dixon (Sam Rockwell). He’s a racist man-child who drinks too much, still lives with his mum, and spends too much time being brutally violent to the local black community and not enough time focusing on actual crimes. As the film progresses, McDonagh very cleverly shifts the narrative’s focus on Mildred to an examination of why Dixon behaves the way he does, giving him a chance for redemption which provides a truly intriguing but still believable character arc.

Audiences at this time of year are immediately drawn to acting performances – everyone loves to speculate as to who will be taking home the big prizes in the various awards ceremonies that take place over the first three months of the year. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, certainly delivers on the acting front – it’s hard to pick out one performer, from those in the lead roles to those filling the background, that isn’t at their absolute best here.

Already tipped to take home the gong for Best Actress at this year’s Academy Awards, McDrmand is superb in the leading role. A mother raging with anger at those who are supposed to support her, McDormand presents Mildred as someone who hasn’t even had the chance to begin to come to terms with her daughter’s death yet – her eyes filled with grief in every scene. She’s a woman not-to-be reckoned with, her violent outbursts providing some incredibly intense moments, but equally, she’s a lady that we can’t help but feel immense sympathy for.

It’s not often that a film pits two Supporting Actors against each other. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell both deliver some of their finest work in their respective roles as Willoughby and Dixon – this is probably Harrelson’s best work since he surprised us all in HBO’s True Detective. It’s Rockwell, however, that delivers the standout performance of the lot, somehow managing to turn the most easily hateable of characters into one that we begin to like. At no point in the film is Dixon perfect, but the Dixon we know as the credits begin to roll has come a long way in comparison to the character that Rockwell portrays at the beginning.

Underneath this acting masterclass is the film’s unsung hero – its script. McDonagh has mastered the art of knowing when things should be funny and when the tension should be ramped up. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri starts at a gentle pace with gentle music to match, erupting at the halfway mark and providing the most unpredictable twists and turns from this moment on. It’s a story of rage, justice and, most importantly, grief – grief that isn’t taken seriously, takes over every inch of those it possesses and has disastrous consequences for all. Although McDonagh has stated that he didn’t write the film with deliberate political intentions, it all feels rather fitting in an age where the news is filled almost daily with stories of police brutality, sexual harassment scandals and racist hate crimes. There are undeniably a few powerful people that could learn a lesson or two from the chaos of a small town in Missouri.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), directed by Martin McDonagh, is distributed in the UK by Fox Searchlight Pictures, certificate 15. 

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Film Editor 18/19 and third year film student. Probably watching something with Ryan Gosling in.

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