AMONG POST-IT notes, dusty notepads, and scraps from past travels, there’s a postcard which my girlfriend proudly mounts in her desk area and is the main message of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
That’s not the film you expect from the trailer. Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a single, middle-aged curmudegon, intent on finding the killer of her daughter earlier in the year.
To do this, she prompts police action by erecting provocative signs just outside of town, questionning the police investigation. (Hence the title of the film. It’s on the nose.)
From here, the trailer would lead you to believe the story unfolds in a typical comedy-drama-revenge-thriller way. It seems quirky, cool, slick – typical stuff from Martin McDonagh, director of “Seven Psychopaths” and “In Bruges”.
Yet Three Billboards is more than this. Part tale of revenge, part comedy, part tragedy, it’s a film which beautifully studies how we deal with grief, and how anger and hatred shapes us.
What maks this character study so compelling is the acting. McDormand will doubtlessly be tipped for Oscars glory, coming off the back of her Golden Globe win, as she plays with aplomb the out to seek redemption, desperate mum. Woody Harrellson (pictured, below left) is his powerful self as police chief William Willoughby, and Sam Rockwell shines as the tormented, racist, alcoholic Officer Dixon.
Solid performances are pretty much all round, from Peter Dinklage as James, to Caleb Landry Jones as Whelby. The only dud note is Lucas Hedges, playing a near-carbon copy of his moody role in “Manchester By The Sea”, with all the charisma of a broken twig. While Hedges screen time is mere minutes, and his characer Robbie owns some truly cracking lines, I was never convinced by his performance, nor attracted to his character. It’s stiff and cold.
No one character in the film is fully likeable; everyone has flaws, habits, hates, loves, insecurities, and evil. These intricacies help move the plot along at a surprisingly quick pace. This speed, along with the character complexity, means the story takes quite a few unexpected turns.
Unfortunately, Dixon’s transformation comes abruptly, and mostly out of happenstance. In this light, the ending is jarring, and does humanise a character who only moments before unapologetically tortures balck people in custody. (I’m trying to keep plot points vague. You’ll see why.) This conclusion leaves you feeling a little uncomfortable, as you’re unsure whether to feel sympathy for Dixon, happiness, or should continue to hate him. Perhaps all three. In any case, this ending is unsatisfactory and leaves quite an impression for not entirely the right reasons.
The photography is fluid and intelligent. There were times some shots were a little out of focus, and this was irritating. Also, the CGI used for one key scene was substandard at best, and shoddy at worst. It didn’t look clean, believable, or professional.
However, the direction is masterful. We see in the start of the film, in just a few frames, exactly what’s going on in the mind of Mildred. The clever direction, and superb focus on ‘showing and not telling’, lets you think for yourself. For a film about three signposts, there’s very little signposting going on here. The screenplay is tight, witty, and polished.
The soundtrack, while sparse, adds to the feel of the town, with banjos, whailing country singing, and rhythmic claps bouncing the story along.
But beyond all of this, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, is hilarious and upsetting in equal measure. I’ve never belly-laughed so hard in one moment, only to be whimpering in the very next scene. McDonagh creates such a tangilble link between you and the characters, in such a short runtime, that you’re hard pressed not to relate somehow, even when you know the sympathy you feel isn’t entirely right.
The weaving of different themes, the way in which the story is told, is unnmatched by any recent comedy-drama I can remember. Racial tension, economic hardship, vengence, forgiveness, abuse, shock, misery, and all the way to love, intertwine in a memorable modern parable. Exactly what the postcard says.