Martin McDonagh strikes gold here, not only the writer but, also directs the film about a tale of grief, racism and the power of words set in small town America tied together by three billboards. Can you guess where it’s set? Yes, the clue is in the title – Ebbing, Missouri.
Central to Three Billboards success is a blistering performance by Frances McDormand supported by an incredible cast including; Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, Clarke Peters but it is Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby who shines brightest. His character provides the support and balances the visceral, raw rage of Frances McDormand’s, as the grieving mother of the murdered teenage daughter. She, who is clinging to the vain hope that using billboards will ignite the police force into searching for her daughter’s killer and, he, a man who knows he has no hope of beating pancreatic cancer.
The film starts with Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), still raw with grief after the brutal rape and murder of her teenage daughter, seven months ago, driving past three dilapidated billboards on a road no one drives down since the new freeway opened. Out of sheer desperation and frustration at the local police chief’s seeming inaction in finding her daughter’s murderer takes out three billboards to shame Chief of police and his force into doing something. Three Billboards is by the writer of In Bruges. If you’ve never seen it then briefly its a black comedy of two hitmen hiding out in that much sought after location of Bruges after carrying out a hit on a Catholic priest that goes tragically goes wrong.
Much like his earlier film, McDonagh uses very black humour to highlight police brutality against black people, bigotry and lack of diversity whilst never losing sight of the central story of a mother who is fighting not just for justice for her daughter but trying to fight the shame and guilt she feels about her last words to her daughter before she was murdered. The power of words on the Billboards, the language used in the movie and the way in which it’s expressed means this film resonates on so many levels – your words are what’s left long after you’ve departed.
Not only is Martin McDonagh a talented writer but his direction is as refreshingly direct as his language. Imagery and symbolism is important to a writer and McDonagh understands this. The abiding image of Mildred running with a paltry fire extinguisher to try and put out the fires engulfing seven foot high billboards is so powerful as the symbol for her fight to get answers on her daughter’s case.
Now call me a prude but the one niggle I have, is the swearing. I can abide all swear words except the c word which does appear a few times in the film. Not as many times as I thought – I’ve seen the film twice but enough for me to remember it. Without that word this film is a 5 star but, the inclusion means I’ve taken a star away.
This film does live up to the hype and in a sea of biopics and big budget movies, here is a film that tells a story and touches on universal truths without overplaying the cliches. It is full of dark gallows humour and is 2 hours long. Actually, for the film length, I am going to award it a half star. So this film gets 4.5 stars.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri opens across cinemas in the UK on Friday 12 January.
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