Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ★★★★ review

by Alistair Ryder

You don’t realise it at first, but then it hits you: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a very modern twist on the archetypal western. Buried in plain sight underneath the button pushing, uncomfortably hilarious dialogue writer/director Martin McDonagh has made a career out of, the story isn’t dissimilar from many classic Western yarns- the only thing that has been changed is the era, even if the socio-political views held by many of the townsfolk don’t appear to have changed in the intervening years.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; dir.: Martin McDonagh; USA 2017, 115 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★★/5

McDonagh uses his latest film to explore the ramifications of sexual assault and police brutality head-on, in a manner that feels undeniably prescient in the Trump era. But he’s a much smarter writer than merely allowing for the same oft-repeated assessments of these subjects to be explored within this narrative, instead preferring you to think about these subjects from the polar opposite perspective. In fact, the film increasingly revels in its own morally problematic nature as it progresses, going as far to attempt to make you feel empathy towards characters who inflict unflinching pain upon other innocent citizens.

The fact it has been awarded multiple audience awards at festivals since its premiere earlier this year is baffling- it’s a film of howling discomfort, which takes great pride in pushing the audience to positively reassess characters shown committing abhorrent acts in front of their very own eyes. It’s as far from a cut and dry crowd pleaser as you can get, and a substantial work of art because of this very reason. That it hasn’t ushered in a wave of horrified think pieces addressing its deliberately problematic, unclear political stance is a genuine surprise.

In a magnificent leading performance, Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a single mother still grieving for her daughter, who was brutally raped and murdered many months prior, with the police failing to identify the perpetrator. Buying out three billboards just outside the town, she posts a graphic message aimed at the town’s police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), which quickly gains media attention- and leads to a series of events that spiral quickly out of control, causing her to become an effective outlaw in her own town.  Mildred doesn’t give a damn about what anyone else thinks, which makes her such a compelling heroine. But in a town full of untrustworthy folk both in law enforcement (Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, a police officer failing to conceal his own insane prejudices), and indeed, within her own personal life (a violent ex-husband, exquisitely portrayed by John Hawkes), her idealistic hunt for justice becomes harder than she bargained for.

The topical subject matter and the challenging approach the film utilises to address it makes it easy to overlook how steeped in the narrative tradition of Westerns McDonagh’s film is. There are shades of everything from genre hallmarks like John Ford’s The Searchers, to more recent revisionist westerns such as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, all wrapped up in what appears to be a simple blackly comic tale of vengeance if taken at face value. McDonagh may have a background as an internationally celebrated playwright, yet throughout the earlier stages of his career, he always expressed a disdain for the theatre in comparison to the medium of film. With his third feature, he has made his most cinematic film to date by putting his own stamp on one of the most inherently epic genres- and it feels like a moment he has been building up to for two decades.

Of course, with his characteristically blunt approach at dealing with contemporary hot button issues at the film’s centre, recognising the lineage this film slots in to may prove to be overshadowed by the narrative content of the film itself. With his previous work, most notably his 2008 masterpiece In Bruges (which this film, admittedly, does not achieve the assured heights of), he perfected the high wire act of balancing dark tragedy with laugh out loud black comedy.

Three Billboards succeeds in provoking chuckles at gags involving, for example, the inherent racism at play with police brutality. But it also aims to depict the horrors surrounding the very same issues, including one extended shot of unflinching amorality that follows the reckless actions of Rockwell’s childish cop. The film never becomes as funny as In Bruges, largely because it has a deeper sympathy for its least likeable characters as it progresses, compared to this earlier work- and it goes without saying that there’s something uncomfortable about laughing with a racist, homophobic police officer (especially after watching him throw an innocent character out of a window, and punch his female assistant in the face) instead of at him.

However, I appreciate any film which has the audacity to take the risk of developing repugnant characters in this manner; from a narrative perspective, the complicated character arcs help make the film so interesting to dissect at a deeper level, even if they make the comedy too uncomfortable for even my twisted sense of humour. Outside of the comic moments, when viewed in the current turbulent political climate, there’s something oddly compelling about McDonagh’s decision to not even attempt to moralise or offer closure to the most disturbing aspects of the film’s narrative, right up to the unexpected cut to the end credits. The film is an anti-crowd pleaser through and through, so it’s a surprise that it has clearly struck a chord with audiences already.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has commanding performances from its entire ensemble, with a screenplay that’s equal parts ingenious and problematic. McDonagh doesn’t make easily consumable films when it comes to his chosen themes, but this is definitely his hardest sell to date; if you can stomach it, you’re in for a dark, uncomfortable treat that you’ll still be debating long after awards season has wrapped.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is released in UK cinemas on Friday January 18 2018.

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