Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri has heart and plenty of guts

A lot of movies can be a bit like candy floss – fun at the time but they quickly dissolve into nothing. However, the latest from writer-director Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges) delivers what a great movie should; real, raw human stories that have no easy answers.

Since I saw Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. At first glance, it seems to be a straightforward crime/vigilante story but it’s far far more than that.

Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand, is frustrated by the lack of progress into her daughter’s murder so she hires out three large billboards on the edge of the small southern town of Ebbing Missouri to light a fire under the local cops. She splashes them with questions to taunt Sheriff Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, but in the hands of writer and director Martin McDonagh, this act evolves into an engrossing study of grief and loss, in particular, the agony of loss due to a violent crime.

The film is notable for many reasons; an older woman is the lead, which is almost unheard of in mainstream cinema, and it’s directed by the writer of the screenplay ensuring the original artistic vision hasn’t been butchered by the demands of corporate Hollywood. The generous use of the c-word is a clear sign it wasn’t written by an American – it takes the Irish to imbue the profanity with such gleeful relish as employed in this movie. McDonagh’s also wrote and directed his two previous feature-length movies, Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges, and they share the same hard-hitting, darkly funny and violent energy.

His cast is a wonderful collection of characters actors who make any movie they appear in the better for it. Frances McDormand has been a staple of the Cohen Brothers’ movies for years and was fantastic in Fargo, but she is outstanding as the lead in Three Billboards. She is so raw and believable as a mother struggling with the grief and demons from her daughter’s death while standing up against small-town politics, gossip and racism. I don’t know any other actress capable of conveying so much with just a glance or hand gesture.

Mildred is also a deeply-flawed character, as are all the characters in the film. Sam Rockwell plays Dixon who appears to be the stereotypical racist southern cop, Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby is the well-meaning but inept small-town sheriff and John Hawkes as Matilda’s ex-husband a wife-beater who runs off with a teenager. As the film draws us in, we discover more about the rage and anger beneath that has knocked these people down and their struggle to find a way forward.

I cannot recommend this movie highly enough, it has been a long time since I sat in a film and wondered “Where is this going to go?” It is dark, violent, funny, tragic, and sad. McDonagh doesn’t employ tricks to turn the story, but it goes places you did not see coming, backed up by a dream supporting cast of Peter Dinklage, Zeljko Ivanek, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Clarke Peters, a great score by Carter Burwell and lush cinematography from Ben Davis, whose previous credits include Guardians of the Galaxy and Dr Strange.

McDonagh and a cast of brilliant character actors led by Frances McDormand deliver a movie about grief and loss that will punch you in the throat while making you laugh out loud.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is out in NZ cinemas from 1st January 2018.

Reviewed by Adrienne Kohler.

5 stars