Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, almost feels as if it’s towering over you, like a monument to the unfiltered failings of humanity – a monument that demands that you pay it the attention it deserves. You’ll find yourself happily willing to do this, because of how impressively balanced the film is; being both unforgivingly honest and also genuinely funny. Also because of its characters, who challenge you (on a multitude of levels), the performances that astound you, and multiple plot strands that have you hooked from the beginning and throughout. The film is one that you want to engage with, but also slightly fear. The levels of quality on show in this turbulent, challenging film, make it one I’m excited to write about, so come along as I review it, won’t you?
After a year of the local police force failing to catch the person who raped and murdered her daughter, Mildred Hayes – played by Frances McDormand – personally challenges them by having three billboards plainly and bluntly ask why nothing has been done. This action causes a number of mixed responses, but as things begin to spiral out of control, more people will be hurt before there is any meaningful resolution.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that I was continually in awe of. It is a film that continually offers nuanced characters, shocking moments, hilarious moments, morally charged questions that I was left to ponder. It is a film that never stopped giving, and even after it finished, was still giving me things to think about. What writer, director Martin McDonagh has created is a total achievement in all aspects. And I think the element of the film I absolutely must talk about first: are the characters.
I have to begin by talking about the character of Mildred Hayes and the outstanding performance by Frances McDormand. Mildred is a character with a gravitational pull to her. She enters a scene with an unavoidable force and then goes onto dominate it. She at times would emotionally rattle me; leaving me mentally knocked out, and other times she would delight me with genuinely honest and funny hits of dialogue, which would always cut through the bullshit and tell it how it is. I was terrified of her. Nothing was going to stop her or sway her, which made her unpredictable, which in-turn made her excitingly dangerous. It is a character who I went back-and-forth on, in terms of if I sided with her actions or words, but she at no point was someone I wasn’t fascinated to watch; to see what she might do next.
But beneath being excitingly dangerous, she was also heartbreakingly damaged (as any parent would be in her situation). There were one-or-two times Mildred brought me close to tears, as behind the seemingly impenetrable exterior, was someone who was really hurting and who I wanted to offer more empathy than I had to give. And so much of what makes this character so outstanding, is Frances McDormand’s performance – she is of course aided by some brilliant directing and a script that never falters, but McDormand elevates the work to another level (fact). She’ll surely garner much praise at the forthcoming awards season (and rightly so), but beyond the glitz-and-glamour of shiny awards, what McDormand brings to the performance is raw, rage-filled and wholly impactful. She injects such a presence into the film and any moment the camera is on her is a moment that is exploding with tension, or anger, or a hidden, but noticeable level of sadness. McDormand rules much of this film and is an absolute force to be reckoned with.
While she rules much of the film, McDormand doesn’t keep all the limelight for herself; instead sharing it with some other brilliant actors who offer some very challenging characters. The character who immediately comes to mind is Officer Jason Dixon – played by Sam Rockwell. He is an unpleasant man who has some displeasing prejudices, which seem to fuel most of his actions and the thought behind them. Perhaps even worse, is that his position of power sees him acting in ways that are more than just mentally harmful for people. With a gun and a baton on his belt, I found myself on edge quite a few times, as I knew he had easy access to instruments that could cause serious damage, or even death. That of course makes things very tense and interesting, but what it also ended up causing, was a path for the character I never saw coming.
I primarily saw Officer Dixon as a minor antagonist for the film. An ignorant man who I pitied more than anything. He still lived at home with his mother, comic books were his only source of reading and the complexities of people were undoubtedly lost on him. So I then found it to be a really bold choice for the film to attempt to redeem the character; to pull him out of his unpleasant ways and try to show that people can change. From a moral standpoint, it was something I struggled with throughout the time in which it was happening and then long after the film had finished. Again, it was a bold move on the films part… and… I think it succeeded at how it handled the character of Officer Dixon. And I think it is in Sam Rockwell’s performance that such a move was achieved.
Rockwell is able to make you hate the character. His performance is one that antagonises the audience; bating them, making them want to hate him. It worked on me, and unlike any other character in the film, he was the one that I would laugh at and not with, in the beginning. But then Rockwell shifts (as does the tone of the writing and the camera work used on him) and you start to see what I felt was a more honest look into Dixon’s mind and world. He’s a sad, lonely man, who’s upbringing shaped his way of thinking. His malleus was misplaced, and it took the words of a good-hearted mentor to set him on the right path. I’ll admit, I still struggle with my feelings on the character, but I applaud writer, director Martin McDonagh for taking the risk on such a divisive character and handling it in a way that felt right. It didn’t harm the film, it evolved it into more, and most importantly, it got me to think.
I could easily spend the rest of my review praising each of the characters on show in the film and the performances behind them (Woody Harrelson of course being another standout). McDonagh crafts a selection of characters who each feel like individuals, whose lives feel lived and whose stories feel true. I’m a film-watcher who loves well done characters over pretty much everything else, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was a film that never stopped offering me deeply fascinating characters – characters who I was forever eager to learn more about and be a part of their stories.
The film has more than just characters who are addicting to watch. There are multiple plot strands that span the film, each weaving in and out of one another. These of course keep the film moving and grab a hold of your initial attention – then passing it over to the character and letting them handle it for the rest of the time. But plot wise, the film never stumbles and only looked to build each strand out into more than it initially seemed. There were many times it would swing an emotional gut punch my way. Gut punches that resonated throughout the rest of the film, and like many elements in it, challenged me intellectually and morally. It’s a further example of the tight, unencumbered script that Martin McDonagh constructed.
And it is in the dialogue that McDonagh gives his characters, that some brutally upfront truths, force their way into your head. Mildred in particular gets lines that cut to the heart of a situation; push past the pleasantries and say what needs to be said. It often garnered laughs from both the audience and I. But the honesty of the character was something that became addictive. I was always excited to see what she might say next and how she would bring the truth of a situation to the forefront. But the writing benefits every character. Each feel like they have their own voice, and the words that they speak feel like what they would say – that’s how well defined many of the characters in the film are. When it becomes available, it’s a script I would very much like to dive into and read.
What writer, director Martin McDonagh has delivered, is a film that never holds your hand; it doesn’t guide you through a story that is tough but still leaves you feeling good or complete by the end. What you get is an unflinchingly harsh reality check that shows how unfair and cruel life can be. In a weird sort of way, I found it refreshing. Most films wouldn’t dare tackle all the themes this one does, and if they did, I think it would be a much more watered-down experience.
This is the first film I’ve seen in the cinema in 2018 and what a start to the year this is. Throughout the film I couldn’t believe the places it was going and the things it was saying, and once it had finished, I only wanted to ponder all its elements. It is an overwhelming experience, with a seemingly limitless amount of power behind it.
I absolutely recommend, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. There’s nothing else to say other than get out to the cinema and see this film. I’m confident it will be getting talked about a lot during the coming award season, so make sure you’re a part of that conversation.
I’d love to know what you thought of the film and my review of it, so please leave any opinions, feedback, etc. in the comments section down below. It would be great if you were to give both my blog and my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings – a wee follow. I’ll wrap things up now, by thanking you for taking the time to read my review and I hope you have a great day!