By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)

 

After winning an Oscar for his 27 minute short Six Shooter in 2006, then making a notable splash with his superlative 2008 big screen debut, In Bruges, British playwright-turned-director Martin McDonagh continues his winning streak with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, delivering a fantastic, memorable mix of human tragedy and pitch black comedy.

Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a divorced mother of two who is still trying to get over the death of one, teenage daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton), who was brutally raped and murdered almost a year ago. Unfortunately the police have no leads, with no DNA evidence found at the crime scene, and as such the case has now gone cold. Beloved Chief of Police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) feels as if his hands are tied, but matters are not helped by his deputy, officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an undisciplined enforcer who reads comic books at work, drinks a little too much, and still lives with his old-school southern mother (Sandy Martin).

When Mildred comes across three dilapidated billboards lining a quiet road into town, she decides to rent them from local advertising representative Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) for the next twelve months, plastering information and questions on each one that are aimed at the local constabulary, making sure her daughter’s murder isn’t pushed aside and forgotten.

Willoughby tries to reason with Mildred about the action she has taken, while Dixon takes a much more aggressive approach, thinking that intimidation, rather than diplomacy, will make the angry resident change her mind. More unexpected is the response from Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who is unsettled at being reminded in big bold writing how his sister died.

As the tension builds between everyone, the question remains as to whether or not Angela’s killer will be uncovered.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is simply outstanding, and is a prime example of how a brilliant script, perfect casting, and focused, intelligent direction can raise a film to classic status, rather than merely throwing hundreds of millions of dollars and copious amounts of CGI at the audience. Writer/director McDonagh has a true gift for dialogue, people, and environment, and that skill is on full display here, with every character feeling part of the story, rather than seeming indulgent or superfluous. The tightrope tonal changes could have easily defeated a lesser talent, but McDonagh is more than up to the task, and also makes sure that the material is never simplistically black-and-white, with plenty of moral ambiguity to challenge the movie-goer’s point of view.

McDormand gives arguably a career best performance as Mildred, and it is certainly up there with her work in Blood Simple, Fargo, Almost Famous, and Wonder Boys. This wonderful actor is too often under-utilised, and this is a first-class reminder of what a fiercely accomplished artist she truly is.

Harrelson again excels, offering a masterfully nuanced and measured turn as the level-headed Willoughby, and is joyfully becoming one of the most reliable character actors around. Rockwell, who scored big in McDonagh’s unfairly maligned Seven Psychopaths, has what is probably the film’s most difficult role, and handles it with his usual skill and finesse.

Other cast members worth mentioning are Landry Jones (who has had a busy twelve months, appearing in American Made, Twin Peaks: The Return, Get Out, and The Florida Project), Oscar nominee Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird), Abbie Cornish (Bright Star, Limitless, 6 Days), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Me and You and Everyone We Know), and Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones, The Station Agent, and had a hilarious part in McDonagh’s In Bruges).

My only quibble is with Carter Burwell’s music score, which is just too reminiscent of his work for the esteemed Coen Brothers. When the opening theme began, I suddenly felt like I was watching Miller’s Crossing, and was then expecting the first image to be a forest, with a black hat being blown hypnotically along the ground. This orchestral familiarity (accompanied by McDormand’s presence) may lead to such a distinctive achievement being mistakingly compared to the famous siblings’ own efforts, but it is doing this film a huge disservice.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri lives up to all the hype, cementing McDonagh’s position as one of the best screenwriters working today, while also proving he is equally exciting as a film-maker, and one hopes that all this fine work will be rewarded at next year’s Academy Awards.

Rating: 5/5

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