Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018)
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.
Directed by Martin McDonagh.
It is still early 2018, but this film could be one of my favourites for the year, no question. TBOEM is wonderfully funny, sensitive, painful and raw. Given the hype, I’m not sure there are many people left on the planet who haven’t seen it but if you are one of the few, you won’t be disappointed.
TBOEM is the third film written and directed by the profane poet that is Martin McDonagh (In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are his previous two hits) and is a rough meditation on the true nature of loss, grief and vengeance. Yet, it is not a tale simply of loss, grief and vengeance, and it’s certainly not the simple tale you presume it to be at heart: that of a mother’s most primal pain and her redemptive path away from it. The film dwells in the ugly pain and fire of grief, while still speaking to both small realities and profound truths. This is in my opinion McDonagh at his most complex, painting entirely in grey as he surveys the cruelties born from barely buried events.
Given all of that, it is wildly funny. A humour that could be dangerously misunderstood or misjudged, but it works with immeasurable confidence and class. It starts with three battered billboards on a road outside of Ebbing, Missouri that nobody drives down anymore. Though it actually began seven months prior when Mildred Hayes’ daughter was raped and burned and left for dead on the side of the road, the silence that has defined the investigation into her killer since has made Mildred ready to fight. ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ comes to mind. When we see her laying down $5,000 to rent the billboards for a month, she’s warrior-like in navy overalls and a bandana pulled tight across her forehead; her face, voice, her entire being rendered raw by her desperate thirst for justice. Her words are soon in 20-foot type: “Raped while dying”, “Still no arrests” and finally, “How come, Chief Willoughby?” We are shown them in reverse order, a gasp heard firmly after reading the first message.
Chief Willoughby (played with pained tenderness by Harrelson) is the local police chief, and the man she holds responsible for the lack of justice, though it’s not a burden he alone carries. She blames his squad, the local news, her ex-husband and the world. To Mildred, they all played a part, and continue to be responsible collectively for never finding her daughter’s murderer. She is not shy about this, and holds herself in a fine, wonderfully intimidating matter. Some could argue she took revenge too far at time, as she remains steadfast even when that price includes her son Robin’s happiness or the health of Willoughby (when he shares that he has cancer, she responds that the billboards “won’t be as effective after you croak”). I need to say here that, despite a surprisingly early exit, in my opinion this is one of Harrelson’s best performances. He is so vulnerable and delicate, yet full of bravery and conviction. He adds to the wonder of the film with grace and a stellar performance.
McDonagh’s real yet hilarious screenplay echoes beautifully from McDormand’s mouth. His witty narrative allows us to laugh in the most unusual of places, and cry in the places that matter. Mildred is so likeable despite her hard outer shell and her lack of empathy and compassion with others resonates so clearly with audiences of all ages.
Three Billboards isn’t just Mildred’s story though — alongside her path runs that of local cop Dixon (Rockwell), a racist with a low IQ and a complete disregard for human and civil rights. Yet somehow, this man who deserves no redemption and a woman who needs it to survive, appear to be heading in the same direction. I think it is this relationship that holds the heart and soul of the film. There is so much conflict between the two but they ultimately want the same thing. Sam Rockwell is so engaging and compelling in this role. He’s an arsehole, but so endearing and special as Dixon. He takes the lead alongside Mildred but this isn’t distracting – it’s absolutely necessary. He takes on Mildred’s painful plight initially to safe face, but becomes increasingly involved and intent on becoming the good cop he always knew he could be.
It’s such a beautiful film, and so worth every award it picked up this season. Frances McDormand is my new favourite human.