THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Director: Martin McDonagh
Screenwriter: Martin McDonagh
Runtime: 115 mins.
Australian Release Date: 1 January 2018
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 18 December 2017.
British/Irish playwright and film-maker Martin McDonagh appears to take a rather jaundiced view of human behaviour; we've seen it in his films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths and it's evident again in his latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It's a blackly satirical film that germinated in McDonagh's mind when he was on a driving trip through the USA. Somewhere along the way he saw some billboards about an unsolved crime on the side of the road and the idea stayed with him. Once he decided that whoever had put them up was likely to be a grieving mother, he had his plot.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is seething with anger and sorrow after the rape and murder of her teenage daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton). The girl was killed some months earlier but no arrest has been made and the cops seem to have run out of leads, so the case is going nowhere. When Mildred spies three dilapidated billboards one day while driving home, she hits upon the idea of galvanising Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) by putting up some inflammatory statements and questions about the crime. The effect is immediate and Sheriff Willoughby's colleague, Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), quickly takes it upon himself to administer his idea of justice to whoever had a hand in erecting the damning billboards. As often happens, his retribution ups the ante (and Mildred’s resolve) and further violence ensues. Mildred's son (John Hawkes) wants her to back down, as do the local priest (Nick Searcy) and most of the town's residents, but Mildred's on a roll and won't hear if it.
If that seems an unlikely premise for satire, don't worry, because in the hands of McDonagh the story becomes very blackly humorous. Mildred is a tough ol' bird with a sharp tongue and a propensity to call it like she sees it, and you wouldn't want to be the subject of her ire. McDormand is magnificent in the role (which was written with her in mind) and nails this paradoxically complex yet simple woman. Harrelson, too, is note perfect as the local cop who's not just some dumb ‘good ol' boy' but, rather, an intelligent, loving man with a significant problem of his own. Rockwell is also very good as a racist cop on a steep learning curve, as Willoughby takes him under his wing and tries to teach him that there are many more shades of colour than simply black and white. The only dud performance comes from Australian actress Abbie Cornish, playing Harrelson's wife. She's been better than this and her accent is all over the shop. Tech credits are uniformly strong, with the cinematography of Ben Davis particularly notable.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a great way to start your cinematic year. Its open-ended resolution will leave you pondering and, like me, wishing that Martin McDonagh made more than one film every few years.