I am familiar with and have enjoyed Martin McDonagh’s previous films for quite some time now – I loved In Bruges: starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as hitmen hiding out in Belgium after a hit gone wrong, it went somewhat under the radar but has since gained a cult following. However, until very recently I wasn’t aware that he not only had made a new film but it was gaining traction as a potential Best Picture winner at the 2018 Oscars. After discovering this fact I watched the trailer and was intrigued, but not overly certain that it was going to prove the success that the hype had suggested it could be.
And not for the first time in my life, how wrong I was.
Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri follows the tempestuous Mildred Hayes as she takes the drastic step to hire out three billboards in order to bring her daughter’s rape and murder case back in to the public eye and to shame the Police department into action. The first thing you might think when reading that short description of the plot is that it is a very difficult and serious subject to base a film upon – and you would be totally correct, however, Three Billboards is a jet-black comedy intertwined with a drama film. Martin McDonagh deserves great credit for managing to inject comedy into such a dark subject matter and there is no doubt in my mind that most of the plaudits should land at his feet for such razor-sharp writing, however, the film would be nothing without the sensational performances of Frances McDormand (as the lead, Mildred) and Sam Rockwell (playing Jason Dixon, as a racist cop).
Although I described the plot as following Mildred Hayes and her decision to take out the infamous billboard adverts, the film really enjoys it’s best moments in the interactions, arguments, fights and twists ongoing between Sheriff Bill Willoughby (played ably by Woody Harrelson although i’m not entirely sure he deserves the Oscar nomination for which he received for this role), his understudy Dixon (Rockwell) and Mildred as the drama unfolds regarding the billboards and the murder case, which has basically been given up until the billboards are discovered. The on-screen chemistry between the three (or basically, any-one on screen with McDormand for longer than ten seconds) is so excellent that even if the rest of the film was dull or dry, I would still have found moments to enjoy in it.
Rockwell and McDormand in typical combat mode
Three Billboards isn’t shy of major dramatic moments however and at the core of the film are three characters in the midst of the most difficult times of their lives; Mildred is still mourning the death of a daughter whom she fought with constantly, Dixon is hated throughout the community because of his reputation as a racist and rumours that he tortured a black prisoner and Willoughby is in the process of dealing with terminal pancreatic cancer. The best credit that I can give this film is that it manages to put together such heavy themes and comedic elements without ever jarring or without feeling like any parts were shoe-horned in for a cheap laugh. It even manages to follow one of the toughest scenes in the film with a scene in which a different character dances around to Abba without it feeling forced or contrived.
I’ve seen complaints levelled at Three Billboards that it deals poorly with certain jokes and characters; for example, Peter Dinklage playing, you guessed it, a midget. I do agree that some jokes around his character edged slightly around immaturity, however, I didn’t feel that there were either too many of these jokes or that they were in bad taste. Rockwell’s racist cop has also been challenged but again, there were only a few comments made which denoted him as a racist and I felt that his character arc helped the audience (almost) empathise with him.
If you’ve heard polarising reviews of Three Billboards or aren’t sure if it will be for you, then go along to watch it and decide for yourself. I can’t recommend it highly enough – it’s funny in only the darkest of ways as well as being thoroughly gripping and entertaining. Rockwell and McDormand are now my picks for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actress. I unfortunately can’t see Three Billboards taking home the Best Picture gong next month however; I can see it being just a tad too sweary and controversial for the Academy Awards.
If you are familiar with, or have enjoyed the previous works of Martin McDonagh i.e. the hilarious In Bruges or the somewhat disappointing yet enjoyable Seven Psychopaths then you will love Three Billboards. If you are unfamiliar with McDonagh’s previous efforts but like well-made, superbly acted darkly comic films then you will also adore his latest effort. However, if you offend easily or like your films to feature absolutely no uses of the “c” word, then I can’t help but feel that I should recommend a different film to you.