Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review: Bottomless sorrow, dark humour and an abundance of Oscar contenders

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018)

Martin McDonagh, an Oscar-winning filmmaker of In Bruges and Six Shooter fame returns with a movie which provides an excellently executed story and a springboard for every single member of the cast. Behind the mouthful of a title hides bottomless sorrow, rage that pushes for consequences blindly, and situational, bleak humour which is a signature of the writer and director of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

three billboards outside ebbing missouri review

“How come, Chief Willoughby?” screams a billboard placed by a road nobody ever drives through, questioning the police by echoing the questions that a suffering mother repeats to herself every day, trying to make sense of her pain and failed investigation. Mildred’s daughter was “raped while dying” and “and still no arrests” were made, as the rest of the banners explain; she’s rented them for a year to hold the local authorities accountable and keep the victim in their memory. But the local community sides with the chief police officer. There’s no tangible evidence that could lead to the killer either – how does one go on in such circumstances?

As a parent convinced to do anything to get closure and serve justice, Frances McDormand encapsulates the depth of trauma related to a brutal loss of a loved one. Her power posture, stern expressions, and excruciating stare take a stab at our hearts and twist the knife, captivating us far beyond the heartache-dripping lines she delivers. She engages us with the deepest part of herself, and it overpowers us in seconds – there’s never enough time for the spectator to dodge that punch. Mildred’s monologue in front of the billboards directed at a doe wandering nearby is one of the most powerful moments of the film, as stunning visually as it is tear-jerking. That’s when dread and vulnerability come to the fore: the mother’s anger takes a softer form, albeit more distressing than anything else we get to see. Its uncontrollable intensity easily makes her performance Oscar-worthy.

Her character is at the centre of a handful of interlocking stories of Ebbing, an otherwise peaceful place somewhere in Missouri. Beyond the dramatic events that attract media’s attention, no one seems to be preoccupied with the local quarrels and tragedies more than the inhabitants are. Gossip flows broadly, people repeat what they heard and pass on truths coated in assumptions; the changes knocking at their door must’ve passed them by when there was no one to answer. The director makes use of the small town’s mechanics, not shying away from controversial depictions to create a staggeringly believable sense of place.

McDonagh’s observations are insanely credible, concentrating on revealing the details through ordinary life: one-to-one conversations, arguments behind the closed doors, or such little acts as offering juice to the person that shares the room with you in a hospital. Be it turning the anger at unknown faces or misfits without any proof or depicting the consequences of news heard through the grapevine, he gets a solid grip of the power structure and portrays it through the small, evenly spread reveals. The director revels in detail that contributes to believable character portrayals, drowned in their sorrow and crushed by their senseless rage. Sometimes, they’re humane even beyond our set-up expectations. They desert from the routes that we might’ve mentally drafted for them already, straying into the roads less travelled.

Dark humour contrasts these everyday acts in McDonagh’s characteristic manner, and unsurprisingly, they rarely miss the beat. It adds a vivid contrast to the toned-down colours of the quiet town and often takes us by surprise. Like in his previous work, he’s not afraid to shock to portray bigotry, suppressed attitudes and behaviours. This time, though, he focuses on the validity of choices more than ever before, employing humour in the wake of the bleakest events to deepen his criticism.

Therefore, the film isn’t short of excellent performances that utilise these detailed sketches to the maximum. Woody Harrelson as chief Willoughby balances the aura of lawful, capable policeman, a tough neighbourhood guard, and a tender father and husband. He combines charisma with endearment effortlessly, and that positions him as the town’s most respected figure beyond the accusations we hear. It easily makes the case of appearances a tough one to crack on our end.

Sam Rockwell gets his hands on a wonderfully complex character that shatters our expectations in a shocking way, too; he gets to show off his acting range. His story, although it’s running quietly behind the powerful stream of grief and rage, turns out to be the most surprising, but making them a figure that deserves to be critiqued regardless. Without a doubt, the actor makes sure to use every moment of Dixon’s onscreen time. But let’s not forget about Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones or Kerry Condon in their supporting roles – they go above and beyond, too.

With a phenomenal cast on top of their game, McDonagh asks more existential questions than before and creates characters through details, allowing us to become omniscient observers silently strolling through the town. This movie leads us astray, stirs up our conscience and ask to cast our own judgement. It tips us off with ordinary situations and powerful emotions as its major currency – and strikes us the hardest when we expect it the least.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri premiered during the 61st London Film Festival. It opens in the UK on the 12th of January 2018. Previews are available at various venues across London in the week leading up to the release.

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Passionate about far too many things. Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate on a daily basis. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being. Liked my work? Buy me a coffee!