Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri first look: Frances McDormand grieves a small-town shitstorm

Martin McDonagh’s latest laconic, multilayered wrong-footer pits McDormand’s storming mourner against two local cops, Woody Harrelson’s omnipotently beloved sheriff and Sam Rockwell’s richly monstrous officer in waiting.


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Frances McDormand as grieving mother Mildred Hayes in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand as grieving mother Mildred Hayes in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Evening sun in the Midwest finds three old advertising billboards that speak of America in commercially happier times and are wasting into ruin. What a site for the staging of a might-be revenge drama of multi-stranded complexity, the third feature from the wickedly funny and perspicacious mind of Martin McDonagh.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a hard-bitten, boiler-suit-wearing mother-of-a-son who works in a gift shop and carries so much grief and resentment she set herself against her whole small town by the simple act of renting those three broken-down billboards on a side road made redundant by a new highway. Flinty and ruthless, she bullies and harasses Red (Caleb Landry Jones), the young man in charge of the local advertising agency branch, into getting them fixed and painted red to carry the following consecutive messages: ‘Raped While Dying’, ‘And Still No Arrests’, ‘How Come Chief Willoughby?’ Her teenage daughter Angela was sexually assaulted and burnt alive; in reaction, her abusive husband Charlie (John Hawkes), has run off with a 19-year-old zoo attendant, and her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) just wants her to move on so he can get on with his life.

Mildred, though, is not having any, and it’s her sincere implacability that underpins McDonagh’s characteristically sharp and occasionally cheap instinct for laughs, with its attendant mocking of PC verities (a lot of midget jokes, for instance, at the expense of Peter Dinklage, here in a role that’s not large, but makes great romantic counterpoint to McDormand’s).

McDormand with Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby

McDormand with Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby

The dramatic poignancy necessary to outweigh such provoking of moral outrage comes in the form of two cops. There’s Chief Bill Willoughby himself (Woody Harrelson), who happens to be dying of cancer – and Mildred knows this – and is beloved by the townsfolk, several of whom pay for their loyalty to him in painful or shaming ways.

Not least of these is the other cop, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), named, I hope, in memory of his opposite, Dixon of Dock Green, a British TV cop of the 1960s who never did anything wrong. This Dixon is a ball of ignorance and spite, still living with his bigoted mother, and only recently cleared of a racist torture charge. He it is who sees the billboards as a declaration of war, but neither his character nor the war and revenge narrative plays out as predicted and instead we’re treated to a nuanced morality play that mocks itself as it goes along but leaves plenty of space for serious emotional resonances, as Mildred’s campaign escalates, and Dixon’s moral education comes on apace.

In fact Three Billboards sticks around in mind and body leaving sweet and sour flavours of its own. Yes, it’s in the Tarantino-to-Coens bandwidth that both McDonagh brothers (Martin and his fellow filmmaker John Michael) find comfortable to their talents, but it can boast of a more capacious feel for nuance than most.

Brit cinematographer Ben Davis creates that space deftly with calm images and Carter Burwell’s score gives it the right mood of folksy melancholia (song choices are dead on apt too). McDormand, the queen of cold quipping, has never been so laconic, or tragic; Harrelson gives off the generous bonhomie that lights up his best roles, but it’s Rockwell who’s the real revelation here, winning the sympathy that only the best of Calibans capture with a performance of an astonishing range of awkwardnesses. I loved it.


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