Writer-director Martin McDonagh has admitted himself that his second film, Seven Psychopaths, was a step down from his superb movie debut, In Bruges. He’s also confessed that he very much bore that it mind when putting the long-gestating Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri together. It arrives now in the UK with award nominations and gongs already being thrust at it.
It’s hard to argue with that, too.
The setup sees the astonishing Frances McDormand’s Mildred, in a desperate situation. Her daughter was lost months earlier to a violent sexual attack, and despite the best efforts of the local police chief, Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby, there’s been no progress in finding her killer. Thus, she takes matters into her own hands. She pays to hire three derelict billboards on the drive into town, and leaves her very targeted message writ large for the chief to see.
Also in the midst of the investigation is Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon, instantly dislikeable and offensive, on a collision course with Mildred. And whilst the film isn’t ultimately a three hander, it does boil down to the fate of that trio of characters.
McDonagh injects each of them with humanity, flaws, areas of grey and complications. Each performer then delivers work that stands alongside anything they’ve done in their career to date. That’s no small feat either, but take McDormand. Her Mildred is by turns broken, calm, funny, tortured, and driven. She is flat out mesmerising here, too, delivering a proper, character-driven and serving performance that has you rooting for Mildred, even if some of her tactics are hard to warm to. It’s a career high, and that’s factoring in her amazing turn in Fargo too.
Rockwell, surely one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated actors, is flat-out fantastic as well. He and McDonagh are a strong match, and the character of Dixon is one of their best ever respective creations. To have the audience warming to such an at-times despicable character is one of the many, many triumphs of Three Billboards, and yet that’s exactly what the film manages. There are real human beings on that screen, damaged in very different ways but each in their own way finding a positive way to get through.
Rounding the circle is Harrelson’s Willoughby. Given that the billboards are expressly aimed against his character on the surface, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re going to get a fairly straightforward conflict here. But what’s particularly striking here is that Willoughby sees Mildred’s point of view. He’s weary, sure, but sympathetic. There’s a horrific crime in the background of this film, and the characters are respective of that.
Furthermore – and how often do you go into a film and feel this? – there are portions of the film where I really had no idea which way it was going to head next. The characters work on such a mixture of impulse and logic that the paths they take, often in the face of horrendous situations, are rarely easy to see coming. There’s something immensely refreshing about that. There are moments here that are incredibly tense, there are others that are flat-out bring the house down funny. And with a supporting cast that are afforded concrete contributions too – Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish and Caleb Landry Jones, for instance – there’s a very real sense of a conflicted community playing out on screen.
I think Three Billboards is an immense achievement. It doesn’t have many soft edges, it’s quite brilliantly written, and the small town feel has a sense of classic 70s American cinema. Granted, there are moments of real discomfort, that aren’t going to play well with everyone. But that’s part of the point. This is an uncompromising picture, from an astonishing writing talent, whose directing is getting better too.
He’s a talent who’s going to need a new mantelpiece over the next few weeks, too. And he won’t be alone where this film is concerned.