Fb logo Twitter logo Email
Mv5bmjmxnzgwmduyml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtq0ntiyndm . v1
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
First run Seenmorethanonce Theater cinema

In his third feature film as a writer/director, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman) furnishes audiences with a razor-sharp, outsider’s perspective on the rage, divisiveness, and absurdity of contemporary white America, of both its blue and red varieties.  The film is called Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—and after a decade of forgettable, interchangeable movie titles, I’m ready to give this film the Best Picture Oscar for its name alone. All that follows the opening title is every bit as declarative and intriguing. The story gets incited within the first minutes of screen time. After lingering quietly on the titular dilapidated and long-unused roadside advertising spaces, the film introduces us to Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand). She drives down the country road that leads to her home, stopping suddenly when the trio of billboards gives her an idea. By the next scene, she’s in town renting them for a year in order to bring attention to the ineffectual police investigation of her daughter’s murder. The action ignites a firestorm of reactions from her neighbors and family—I don’t know that she has any actual friends—and gets the immediate attention of the police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his violent, racist subordinate Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).

The type of economical, precisely constructed narrative on display in this opening has all but vanished from modern cinema in favor of taking inordinate time to establish some sense of lived-in reality, or link to a true story, or connection to other movies in the same preexisting universe, or endless scenes of clumsy exposition. McDonagh’s screenplay embraces the deliberately concocted approach of pictures made during Hollywood’s Golden Age and applies them to modern issues and themes. From the first moments, the film lunges through a series of unexpected narrative turns, exchanges of dialogues that range from fierce to compassionate to comical, and unabashed monologues. McDonagh displays his theater roots openly. His two previous features—the darkly comic crime thrillers In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012)—though set in a range of wide-open spaces, still feel crafted for the stage.

Three Billboards also bears this distinct theatrical nature. The fictional Ebbing seems less like a real town than a collection of spaces where conversations and actions take place. The people that populate this area don’t come across as everyday folks you’d meet walking down the street (at least not a street in Missouri). The characters in Three Billboards embody emotional states. The actors are practically avatars for intense feelings many viewers have raging inside them but lack the ability to articulate with the dexterous command of language possessed by those who inhabit a work by Martin McDonagh. These dramaturgical facets are not flaws, but rather a manner of storytelling that’s unfortunately fallen somewhat out of fashion.

Not every choice McDonagh makes lands perfectly. There are some joke lines delivered by dimwitted characters that break the delicate internal credibility of the film and land with a sour thud, despite the laughs they score. And some quiet, metaphorical sequences feel forced, even though McDonagh attempts to undercut them with self-conscious, winking humor. But for the most part, Three Billboards is a fascinating piece of entertainment. In fact, the sheer level of entertainment derived from bleak and unpleasant subject matter is part of what makes it so absorbing.  The movie comes from a writer who built his career mining laughter from pain, isolation, physical violence, and the harm that results from violent language. But rather than simply reveling in shallow nihilism, McDonagh spins rollicking yarns from unsavory raw materials and then forces us to question why we have such a good time watching them.

In Three Billboards we love seeing the righteous indignation of McDormand’s Mildred Hayes in part because we ourselves feel so confident in our own narrow and strongly held views. It’s fun to see someone who seems so justified in their anger go off on people. Yet we can’t sanction everything Mildred does over the course of this picture. Likewise we delight in watching the always-brilliant Rockwell portray the comically stupid police officer Dixon. It’s comforting to think that the only real racists around are guys as blatantly deplorable as this idiot. But the more layers of humanity Rockwell shows us, the less comfortable we feel. Everything McDonagh sets up in the first third of the story gets shifted to unsettle our preconceived ideas of right and wrong.

The unsettling morality is also where the film departs from Golden-Age-era storytelling. No inhabitants of this movie live happily ever after, get redeemed of their sins, or reach a sense of closure or catharsis that satisfies themselves and those around them. Every character is punished in some way, whether he or she “deserves it” or not, yet the picture still manages to instill a feelings of hope for the future rather than pessimism. Three Billboards isn’t the type of modern-day fable that offers a simplistic vision of an idealized world. It explores the complexities and nuances of our own behavior through a heightened, fictional representation.

Twitter Capsule:
A disturbingly entertaining outsider’s perspective on the rage, divisiveness, and absurdity of contemporary white (red and blue) America; McDonagh’s theatrical approach is refreshingly old-fashion. 

Directed by Martin McDonagh
Produced by Martin McDonagh, Graham Broadbent, and Peter Czernin

Written by Martin McDonagh

With: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, Clarke Peters, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, John Hawkes, Kathryn Newton, Zeljko Ivanek, Brendan Sexton III, Samara Weaving, and Nick Searcy

Cinematography: Ben Davis
Editing: Jon Gregory
Music: Carter Burwell

Runtime: 115 min
Release Date: 10 November 2017
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1