Review: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS]

Already flush with the success of The Golden Globes, and with a good deal of hype surrounding the possibility of further awards success, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is at risk of over-hype. Exiting the preview screening in Belfast last night and from comments this morning from some of my colleagues, its clear that the film has left them with a distinct feeling of ‘meh’. You see, Three Billboards is dark, sharp and witty, but it also lacks clean resolution. And ambiguity is something the general cinema-going public struggle with.

Three Billboards centres on Mildred (Frances McDormand), a woman who has taken a pointed activism by renting three huge, neglected, billboards just outside the little town of Ebbing, and using them to ask questions of the police force regarding the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter.

Its a striking approach from a woman consumed by guilt and grief, who cannot accept the loss of a child. In a flashback we see mother and daughter rowing “I hope I get raped” screams the daughter. The mother concurs audibly. And we know already the outcome.

Family, and lost children are central to Three Billboards, not just in the ghostly memory of Angela, but in the fractured families around the town. The terminally ill Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his young wife and two children; Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and his manipulative mother (Sandy Martin); a priest (Nick Searcy) whose spiritual children are deserting him. There’s a reference to Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, playing on a TV at the Dixons – Mrs Dixon relishing the tale of a lost child.

Don’t Look Now provides the lens through which we should view Three Billboards, for it remains a cautionary tale of the all-consuming power of grief and anger. In Roeg’s masterpiece Donald Sutherland plays a father who looses his daughter in tragic domestic accident. He remains haunted by her death and his guilt clouds his ability to see the world properly. He catches sight of her in the streets and alleys of Venice, ignoring the advice of those around him, to the point where his actions bring about his own destruction. Grief then is a destructive force.

It is grief which we discover, drives the actions of most of the protagonists of Three Billboards, preventing them from seeing things clearly – allowing them to make rash decisions to the detriment of their being, their sanity, their safety.

While this remains key to understanding Three Billboards, there is more at play. Beautifully shot, and faultlessly performed, Three Billboards is peppered with finely-tuned performances. And a tightly crafted, brilliantly cutting script that horrifies and humours in equal measure. This is a black comedy of the highest order, one in which the humour is needed to facilitate the cynical social and political commentary that the film makes on injustice.

The Ebbing folk are slightly unbelievable – with the possible exception of Mildred – there’s an element of freakish about the residents. And they are frequently unlikable. A police force run by white racists, while the community takes up the stance of vigilantes. They are problematic too. The men are either deliberately or sub-conciously aligned with predatory behaviour. The humble billboard executive Red (Caleb Landry Jones) seems to be having an affair with his secretary and one feels like he is trying to fleece Mildred too; Dixon is a serial abuser of “people of colour”; Willoughby’s wife is a good 20 years his junior and refers to him as “poppa”; Father Montgomery is lambasted by Mildred in a cutting attack that aligns him as a protector of paedophiles while he sits at a table with her teenage son; Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) is screwing Penelope a naive 19 year old girl (Samara Weaving).

With the exception of the two older females – Mildred and Mrs Dixon – who are themselves somewhat cunning and manipulative, the other women are all much younger and have little identity outside objects of sexual reproduction. Mrs Willougby is shown obeying her husbands wishes and discussing sex with him. Penelope is shown as a somewhat dim sex object. Even poor Angela serves no function other than to be raped offscreen, and then discussed in that context.

Considering the wins at the Golden Globes, during the huge protests surrounding misogyny in Hollywood, there is something deeply uncomfortable about a film that on the one hand demonstrates a strong female character fighting back against a biased and oppressive system (which earned McDormand the Best Actress Globe), while at the same time presenting a group of more rounded male characters who are deeply flawed or corrupt, yet likeable. It is impossible to view Three Billboards outside of the post-Weinstein landscape it is released into, and not think – “plus ça change”.

In its resolution, Three Billboards posits possible redemption for everyone, and reminds us that closure is not always finite, is not always clearly definable. It finds different paths and is as much a spiritual journey as a checklist conclusion. This leaves its narrative open to speculation – a car journey with a couple whose intertwined lives are seeking their own resolution, reminding audiences perhaps of the ambiguity of another Golden Globe success, The Graduate.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Director: Martin McDonagh
Running time: 115 mins

Reviewed by : Robert JE Simpson
9 January 2018

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