- 12 Jan 18
It's a four star show, for sure – but the award-scooping Martin McDonagh movie poses interesting political questions. Meanwhile, the magnificent Frances McDormand is superb throughout…
“Raped While Dying.” “Still No Arrests.” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”
So read the three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Commissioned by Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), the signs reference the murder of her sixteen year-old daughter Angela. Seven months have passed and Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has no leads; it is just the latest indictment of his police force, since one of his officers, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), tortured a Black inmate.
It’s heavy subject matter – but as with all of McDonagh’s work, Mildred’s almost Biblical quest for justice is marked by a dark, blistering wit, and a humanity that belies all the deeply flawed characters, hidden under their irreverent humour and often violent interactions.
The main propulsive energy at the heart of Three Billboards is Mildred’s rage; the kind of obsessive, transformative rage that can’t be abated or extinguished, only channelled. But without any information on her daughter’s killer, Mildred instead lashes out at every patriarchal presence she encounters: the priest whom she savages for the abuses of the Catholic Church; the racist justice system; her ex-husband for seeking out a dumb, pretty girlfriend. Even her son’s friends receive a swift punch for daring to be disrespectful.
McDormand is a powerhouse, and watching her glowering fearlessness and all-consuming grief is a breathcatching experience. But as Mildred’s actions become more destructive, and the motivations of other characters are explored, Three Billboards becomes a different beast.
McDonagh’s work typically relishes being politically incorrect, but one way of reading the movie is that there’s something decidedly uneven about who gets right of reply in Three Billboards. It’s inferred that Mildred Hayes is not a racist (because she has a Black friend, who just happens to remain nearly silent throughout) – yet she uses the N-word, and we’re meant to laugh. Just as wit his acclaimed In Bruges, McDonagh introduces a character who is a little person (Peter Dinklage), only to be mercilessly mocked for that. Meanwhile, a racist, misogynistic, violent character gets to ride off towards a sunny horizon of redemption without reckoning with his issues – and it’s pitched as heroism.
McDonagh’s dark humour and the film’s performances are compelling. But is that enough? On the face of it, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film about race, poverty and outsiders. The fear, however, is that its effect is ultimately to uphold the status quo. There’s a difference between shocking people through jokes and violence, and seriously grappling with uncomfortable truths. Three Billboards does one very effectively, when ideally it would have achieved both.
• THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters. 115 mins
In cinemas January 12