It’s fair to assume that I have a lot to say about this film.
I’m not at all surprised by the awards Martin McDonagh’s latest film has been sweeping up, nor the debates it has spurned. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (capitalisation not my own) is by far my favourite film of the last year, if not one of my favourites ever. I’ve been a fan of McDonagh’s work for a long time; In Bruges (2008) was years ahead of its time and deserved far more attention and Seven Psychopaths (2012) brought out performances from Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell that I’ve revisited more times than I can remember. I’ve also read a number of his plays too – A Behanding in Spokane is a personal favourite – and it would be fair to say that McDonagh’s brand of dark humour in the midst of sincere drama is exactly concurrent with my taste in film and theatre.
On to Three Billboards. First conceived around ten years ago, the film feels incredibly pertinent to the current Times Up/Me Too era. Perhaps some of its awards success can be attributed to the fact that it features, as McDonagh himself has said, “A woman who refuses to take any shit any longer, played by a woman who has always refused to take any shit.” The woman in question being the incomparable Frances McDormand. McDormand has been a favourite of mine since Fargo over twenty years ago. Her refusal to bow to media or industry conventions (“I have a few issues with compliance”) and the pickiness with which she chooses her roles has always endeared her to me. McDonagh wrote the character of Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards specifically for McDormand, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing that role.
The film tells the story of Mildred, a woman whose daughter was raped and murdered on the outskirts of the small (fictional) town of Ebbing, Missouri seven months ago, and who rents out three billboards outside of town calling out the police department for the lack of arrests in the case. But, the film isn’t a clear good versus bad battle. It’s not as if the police haven’t tried to solve the case, but the lack of evidence and witnesses has made it impossible. Woody Harrelson’s police Chief Willoughby is the target of Mildred’s anger, but he is a perhaps surprisingly sympathetic character; he wants to find the culprit as much as Mildred does, but the situation just isn’t in their favour. It’s an antagonistic relationship in which both parties are on the same side. Step in Willoughby’s deputy, Jason Dixon (Rockwell), a bigoted, infantile, racist cop defensive of his chief to a fault and who could very easily serve no other purpose than as the film’s comic relief, were it not for an astoundingly nuanced performance by the criminally underrated Rockwell and a third act narrative development (I won’t spoil the film) which, whilst by no means offers Dixon redemption, but adds another layer to his character that nobody expected. This character arc has been one of the key points of contention surrounding the film. Some have suggested that Dixon appears to be redeemed at the end of the film, and that this is inherently problematic, but I would strongly disagree. Dixon is in no way redeemed. Yes, he might be beginning to see the error of his ways, but he still has a long way to go. In no way does he become any sort of hero by the film’s conclusion. More, the film seems to depicted just a small part of these characters’ journey. Dixon might never renounce his bigotry, but, at least he’s started to recognise that he needs to change.
This is the crux of the film. Despite its brutal violence, foul-mouthed characters and tragic story, it is a hopeful film. It is undeniably angry, but it shows that, by channelling anger the right way, we can improve and grow as a society. It is a story of humanity and compassion; the anger is engendered by the circumstances, not the people; ultimately, everybody wants justice.
It is a narrative driven by characters, but also by a blend of humour and pathos. The darkest moments of the film are often saved from over-sentimentality by a stab of humour that you almost feel bad for laughing at. A highlight for me in this regard is the single-take two minute long scene documenting one of what I believe to be the greatest depictions of grief in cinema history. When the stocky, clumsy Dixon strides across the street, smashes down the door to the Ebbing Advertising Agency, thunders up the stairs, throws Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) out of a first floor window, punches his assistant in the face, walks back downstairs to further beat up Welby, then returns to the police station, passing the new Chief, it could so easily have been played for laughs, but the use of the hauntingly beautiful His Master’s Voice by Monsters of Folk combined with Rockwell’s devastating performance elevates the scene to one of the film’s most powerful. Somehow, despite his shortcomings (and they are plentiful), we sympathise with Dixon and feel his pain. He is evidently not the most intelligent and wears his heart on his sleeve, so when we do see him grappling with complex emotions of grief, it is all the more visceral and heartbreaking. On a side note, I’m delighted that Rockwell is finally getting mainstream critical attention. The man has been turning out awards-worthy performances too frequently and for too long (see Moon, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Way Way Back and The Green Mile, amongst others) to be neglected any longer. A self-described “journeyman actor”, he is one of those actors you barely notice as he disappears so completely into his roles. Dixon might well be his most accomplished performance to date with nuances and emotional beats that, on paper, I never would have expected – I’m glad that he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves.
The film’s soundtrack is filled with surprisingly fitting choices. Long-time Coen brothers collaborator, Carter Burwell, has curated a soundscape reminiscent of a spaghetti western, adding a somewhat mythic quality to the film. Mildred becomes a sort of western anti-hero, a John Wayne for today, and her paramilitary jumpsuit only encourages this perception. The cinematography too is jaw-dropping. The strikingly red billboards look incredible in the dark, and the image of them in flames with Mildred stood above them is nothing short of iconic. Fire is indeed a constant motif of this film. It represents the anger held by many of the characters and the speed with which the effects of this anger spread. But, it also brings characters together, gives them a campfire to rally around and to try and work out their problems through talking.
Whereas the film’s trailer focuses on the humour and violence of the piece, the film itself is far slower and more measured. Time is given over to allow the characters just to think and be. The acts of violence committed are actually thought out rather than impetuous, and showing these thought processes says more about the characters than the actions themselves. Long periods of time are given over to atmosphere-creating silences, which are punctuated with bursts of foul-mouthed aggression or gut-wrenching emotion. It is a patient film, letting its characters stay angry or grieving for as long as is necessary. There are no forced character arcs; indeed, most of the characters barely move from A to B, let alone from A to Z.
McDonagh has said himself that when he writes his screenplays, he doesn’t plot out the narrative first, but rather lets the characters write their own stories. The unexpected twists and turns in Three Billboards is testament to that. Without giving away any spoilers, I certainly didn’t anticipate Willoughby’s arc, nor did I see what was coming in “that” fire scene until right before it happened, at which point my head was my hands. This is McDonagh’s gift as a writer, his characters are so strong that they don’t need flashy gimmicks to entertain, just watching conversations between them is enough. The language used is always biting and ferocious – it seems like everybody is angry and everybody else – but it’s ultimately undermined by love. This is a small town whose people only want the best for one another. The narrative therefore turns on a pin drop, reflecting how real people react to traumatic situations, particularly those in the claustrophobic environs of small town America. As viewers, we become completely immersed in Ebbing; it is the whole world for this film and the three central tragedies driving the narrative turn the town on its head. Unlike films set in larger cities or across multiple locations, the everyday darknesses of the people in Ebbing become the forces which drive the narrative. Their individual problems come to represent greater issues and the resolution found isn’t what we’d hope for, but is what this town needs.
The three protagonists are backed up by an extensive list of supporting characters, each one more developed than the next. Of particular note are Sandy Martin as Dixon’s mother and chief proponent of his infantile behaviours, and Landry Jones as Red Welby, owner of the Ebbing Advertising Agency and the bearer of the brunt of Dixon’s anger. Given McDonagh’s theatre background, it’s probably unsurprising that this feels almost like a stage play. With its intimate setting, somewhat stylised dialogue and tragic narrative, the film is almost Shakespearean. Indeed, so many of his actors have appeared in multiple McDonagh productions that he is all but building up a repertory company of some of the greatest acting talent in the industry.
Three Billboards is an exquisitely composed piece of drama, tragedy and comedy which doesn’t shy away from showing the full complexity of the human psyche in its scrappy, complicated glory. There are no true heroes or villains in this piece, just as there are very few in reality. The characters are all drawn together by the iconic image of the three billboards outside of town, an image that has recently been used by activists world wide in search of their own justices. It’s been over a month since I last saw the film and it’s still the film my mind jumps to when I’m lying in bed at night. I’m sure this won’t be last time I talk about Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri.
Just another thing: The “Hey fuckhead” scene might be one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on film, I watch that clip everyday.