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Despite not getting its full UK release until January, a constant buzz has been building around Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri for almost a year. The rave reviews from the London and Toronto film festivals have heralded its arrival for a variety of reasons.
THAT trailer, featuring a most foul-mouthed Frances McDormand as grieving mother out for justice Mildred Hayes, announced that the film was out to shock, while devoted fans of In Bruges and the less acclaimed but no less memorable Seven Psychopaths hungrily awaited the return of director Martin McDonagh. After seeing both return to action, it’s good to see a film live up to the hype.
The story goes that after months of zero progress in the investigation of the brutal murder of her daughter, Mildred seeks to force local police chief Willoughby’s (Woody Harrelson) hand by calling him out via three advertising boards stationed on the road Angela Hayes died; a road tragically in full view of her family home.
The advertising agency, kept afloat by Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), sits directly opposite the Ebbing police station, home to Harrelson’s pillar of the community, Chief Willoughby, and the not so nice Dixon, played with characteristic instability by Sam Rockwell – both returning from Seven Psycopaths.
This close proximity sets up the battle to come, but while Hayes embarks on a quest for action, taking matters into her own hands to force a search of her daughter’s killer, the confrontation sheds unexpected light on both her life and those of the police targeted by her billboards.
As expected from this cast, the performances anchor the story in reality, with the twists and turns of each channelled by three actors at the top of their game in Harrelson, Rockwell and McDormand. But it is the latter’s presence which sets the film alight.
It’s rare for an actor to have one role come along in a career to which they are perfectly suited, one where it is not known or asked if anyone else could play it. For Frances McDormand, we thought that came in Fargo but now we know lightening can strike twice with her burning performance of a mother waging war on the world.
The great skill in the character is that Mildred is used as a touch paper for a whole array of social and judicial injustices recognisable today, from police ineptitude and brutality in the deep south to the failures of powerful figures and their bias against women. From drilling a hole in the hand of an obnoxious dentist to an eloquent tirade against a clergyman, she takes them all down.
“It’s like all those rape cases you hear about except this time the chick ain’t losing,” she riles in one of many strong scenes throughout.
McDormand offers up a burning figurehead of justice for the ages, with a performance matching peaks with troughs throughout; from hard faced juggernaut to emotional wreck in the space of a look. The range of Francis has never been more evident, not least in scenes involving her abusive ex-husband, so it seems a shame when the narrative turns away from her for a spell. However, the joys in the performance remain a constant throughout.
Her skill in tackling the range needed for the role is matched on two fronts, McDonagh’s skilful direction being the first. Fans of the breakout In Bruges will be familiar with the director’s ability to juggle humour with tragedy but this is taken to a new level here.
The tone, drifting from laugh out loud moments to extreme violence and sombre storytelling, is toyed with expertly and intertwine throughout – in some scenes typified within a single frame. This is testament to the director’s skill and also his script, which realistic and joyous language that lingers long after viewing.
The third masterstroke of Three Billboards is Carter Burwell’s score, incorporating original compositions with a mix of well selected tracks used to great effect. Mixing acoustic guitar, opera, rock and lyrics, the result sees the Coen Brothers-inflected dialogue meet up with a soundtrack Tarantino would be happy with.
However, the film is not without its faults and the exploration of characters away from Mildred can offer little more than a distraction, particularly in the case of Rockwell’s Dixon. Where Chief Willoughby’s story offers an affecting switch in the moral centre of the film, dealing with his own sense of loss to come as opposed to Mildred’s past tragedy, in Dixon we have a different case.
Dumb, violent, racist and homophobic, the idea that this cop is left on the force for being “a good guy” is a difficult pill to swallow. Rockwell’s character admirably takes on the debate around cops in the southern states of America that has raged for decade and appears not be slowing. His personal journey ebbs forward like the others but with actions so demonstrably vile in the opening salvos of the film, Dixon may be too far over the edge to be saved by his later good deeds.
To be honest, more McDormand would have been preferred, although as ever Rockwell delivers in spades on his performance.
Having said that, Three Billboards bursts forward to provide a welcome kick in the gonads to injustices large and small, with a burning figurehead for the ages at its heart. Combined with Martin McDonagh’s dexterous ability to mix emotions throughout, the wildly effective soundtrack and even right down to the enigmatic finale, Three Billboards will no doubt light a fire in the belly of any audience.
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