Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri- Movie review

by Gemma Gracewood / 11 January, 2018

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Directed by Martin McDonagh

★★1/2☆☆☆

Celebrated Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has lately been creating brilliant theatre on screen: In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are fan-boy favourites, so a new McDonagh is an exciting notion for those who like their dark comedy interrupted by sudden violence. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri pits Frances McDormand, grieving and caustic as Mildred, against a lower-key Woody Harrelson, the local police department’s Chief Willoughby. Her daughter, violently murdered; his department, no closer to a lead. She rents the three billboards in question to directly provoke Willoughby and his team into action. 

Much has been and will be written about McDormand, as it should. She’s beyond excellent, a ball of rage in a boiler suit and under-cut, who runs a gift store and raises a high-school-age son while fending off visits from her abusive ex-husband. A complicated hero, to say the least. McDonagh lands a zeitgeisty slam-dunk with her, but while Mildred’s anger at the slow-working men who could solve her daughter’s murder is perfectly on the nose, he fails at several other turns.

Frances McDormand plays a murder victim’s mother seeking justice in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

There are not one but several insipid young female characters, there to serve as the butt of old-fashioned jokes about secretaries and mistresses. Same goes for the usually excellent Peter Dinklage (look past Mildred’s pain and his James is really one long, lame gag about “midgets”) and for the characters of colour, who barely even get names let alone inner lives.

Sam Rockwell, however, has a whale of a time with his role, a slobby, stupid and revoltingly unhinged cop named Dixon, who by rights should be behind bars for his abuses of power, but instead gets the film’s best scenes. We want to know that bad people can be redeemed, but at what cost to the rest of the town, and to a wider context?

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like a five-star film experience in the moment. Each shocking scene is sideswiped by a joke; each joke slapped into submission by a shocking twist. The next day, however, I had the nagging thought that maybe all those clever comedy sideswipes were a little too fabulous. It’s like McDonagh read the room, but not the fine-print: people are still hurting out here, and maybe it’s just a little too soon.

This is published in the January - February 2018 issue of Metro.

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