A review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Housekeeping: Martin McDonagh’s 2018 film (released in the UK on 12th January) runs for approx. 1hr 55mins
One Sentence Synopsis: Some bad people do some good things, whilst some good people do some bad things, whilst the audience tries not to sob.
Rating: An infinite amount of flaming billboards/10
If you’ve seen any other McDonagh films, you’ll know that often events break down into frantic lunacy. However this is far from the truth with Three Billboards, which presents a beautiful character study centered around balance. McDonagh gifts the audience with a set of people who defy our expectations and whose experiences provide a thoughtful and well-rounded perspective on life in Ebbing.
Our first impressions of Chief Willougby, played wonderfully by Woody Harrelson, come from two scenes. Firstly, before we meet him in person, his name is plastered on one of the billboards, prompting us to believe that he is a neglectful cop who has discarded the case in question. We then see him at the dinner table, answering the phone against his wife’s wishes, and neglecting family time, further enforcing this first impression. However, through several encounters between Willoughby and Mildred, we come to learn that he is simply stuck between a rock and a hard place – unable to catch a break in a case which he desperately wanted to solve and is thus forced to leave it behind. Through scenes between him and his family, we learn of the love he has for them, rejecting the ‘married to work’ police officer stereotype. And finally, through the beautiful letters read by Willoughby, we see an insight into his humour and his wisdom – he was never the ‘too busy eating Krispy Kremes to solve the case’ cop we may have pegged him as in the first minutes of the film.
Dixon, portrayed by Sam Rockwell, perhaps undergoes the most significant change in the film. In our initial encounters with him, he appears to simply be an idiot, there to remind us of the flaws in the small-town police department and to provide comic relief through being teased about his (s)mother. It is suggested that he has a history of racism and violence, which is further re-enforced by his actions in the film. However there is a sense of pity that comes from seeing Dixon behave in this way, as we know that these are the actions of a man who isn’t thinking, rather than one who is inherently malicious or cruel. Later in the film, we learn more of his sympathetic past and Willougby’s words to Dixon provide the catalyst for change. Although not truly redeemed (an aspect which adds an even greater emphasis to the balance of the film) Dixon becomes thoughtful and intelligent. It is the potential friendship and conceivable forgiveness, rather than outright happily-ever-after, which makes McDonagh’s film so detailed and sensitive.
It is, of course, Frances McDormand’s performance as the wonderful Mildred which steals the show. This is a character who is presented as nuanced from the very beginning, yet has both grown and devolved by the end of the film. Mildred demonstrates a beautiful balance between maternal love; justice for her dearly loved child, and harshness; seen in the lengths she goes to in order to achieve this. It is clear that Mildred is simply doing what she believes is best, but alienates her son through seeking the truth for her daughter. In her more emotional scenes, she displays a sense of vulnerability and weakness, but in other, more violent moments she seems hardened and perhaps almost mad. At first I wondered whether Mildred was a character who presented many dualities, but on reflection, perhaps a better word is balance: balance between violence and weakness, maternity and alienation, humour and despair. She is beautifully written by McDonagh, and Frances McDormand fully deserves all the praise she has received for this role.
The entire film is about nuance – we might feel entirely sympathetic towards a character whilst also questioning or condemning their actions. McDonagh captures wonderfully the complexity of human character in times both of trauma and quiet.