I’m going to be honest: I’ve never seen In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths. The reason I bring this up is that both films were written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Both are on my to-watch list, though. But I’m just making it clear that he wasn’t the reason I rushed to see his new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
No, there were two other reasons I rushed to see it. The first was the cast list, which is absolutely fantastic. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell – all have proved themselves to be amazing actors over the years, so a film with all three involved was bound to be worth a watch.
The other reason was the trailer. Seriously, if you haven’t done so already, just watch it. It’s the kind of trailer that lets you know exactly what kind of film you’re in for, without spoiling too much about it.
(Oh, actually, before you do watch it, just make sure there are no kids around. Seriously, the words “fuck, piss and cunt” are literally said in the second sentence.)
It has to be said, the trailer certainly left an impression on me. But how well was the film itself? Did it live up to expectations?
The film begins with Mildred Hayes renting three billboards, where she asks the police, in three short but brutal sentences, why they haven’t found the person who raped and murdered her daughter. At first, it doesn’t seem like too much of a problem, since hardly anyone uses the road the billboards are actually on. But gradually, attention towards the billboards starts to grow…
That’s the most I’ll describe of the plot. There are a lot of surprises throughout the film – surprisingly, there’s actually a rather crucial one revealed very early on that the trailer didn’t even hint at – and the less you know going in, the better.
(Having said that, I’m still going to write a detailed review on it while avoiding spoilers, if possible.)
One thing I really liked about the film’s developing plot is that it is entirely focused around the billboards themselves, and not the crime. Oh, the consequences from the crime on Mildred, her family and the community are explored, but the billboards themselves are the primary focus. It’s an interesting take on the crime genre, if this film even fits that description, but it works.
Ordinarily, a mother grieving for her murdered daughter while seeking justice would be a very sympathetic character. Fuck, in some ways, that’s a sympathetic character by default. Honestly, you’d have to try really fucking hard to make a character like that unlikable, or at least, is challenging to like.
However, you have to be impressed both by Martin McDonagh and Frances McDormand on how together, they achieved exactly that.
Mildred doesn’t want sympathy. She has absolutely none to give. She’s not a mother looking for justice, not really. She’s mainly lashing out, not just at the police in general, but primarily at the chief of police, William Willoughby.
Perhaps Mildred would be more likable if Willoughby was a man who was terrible at his job, like she paints him out to be. But Willoughby is clearly not someone who got the job by pure luck. Everyone in the community loves him, and everyone has good reason to. Willoughby is just a very honest cop who tried to do his very best. Mildred doesn’t see him that way, and that conflict drives a lot of the film.
Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson are absolutely fantastic in their lead roles. Which is to be expected really, as both are phenomenal actors. Both provide a lot of depth to each of their roles, and the scenes shared between them are fantastic to watch.
For the record, the fact that Mildred is so unsympathetic isn’t a criticism. Quite the reverse, in fact. As I mentioned before, she isn’t your typical “grieving mother” template character. She’s distinctive, memorable, and as challenging as she is, impossible not to watch.
A very dark comedy…
Considering the subject matter, it would almost be surprising how hysterical the film is. I say “almost” because, as I said before, the crime itself isn’t important: the billboards are. As a result, the reaction the characters have to the billboards – and to each other – is often hysterical to watch.
The dialogue is well written and equally well performed. Yes, there’s a lot of swearing, but, like one of my favourite satires The Thick of It, there’s almost a sense of poetry in how that swearing is used.
Also, I have to mention that Sam Rockwell is fucking brilliant as Dixon. A racist and violent cop, he’s actually the funniest character to watch in the whole film. (No, seriously.) Seeing him listening and low-key dancing to Chiquitita by Abba would be hilarious to watch just out of context. In context, though? It’s a masterpiece of utterly black comedy.
…with real heart
The thing that surprised me most about the film though was that, as dark and intense as it could get, there’s a real heart to it, too. I don’t want to sound cheesy about it – this isn’t a family film, after all – but when the film finished, I was surprised to find a real sense of optimism. It’s small and very understated, but it works very well. Characters make choices and change in ways that you don’t expect them to. When the ending comes along, it doesn’t feel like bullshit, but it’s not a totally depressing resolution, either.
Three Billboards didn’t just live up to expectations. It honestly exceeded them. Along with Baby Driver, it’s probably one of my favourite films of 2017, and definitely recommended. It also makes me want to watch In Bruges, and not just this single (but brilliant) clip: