Tuesday 16 January 2018

Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

A social drama and comedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a sharp story about grief, lashing out, and unintended consequences.

Seven months after the unsolved rape and murder of her teenaged daughter, the deeply bitter Mildred (Frances McDormand) buys advertising space on three billboards on a quiet rural road, calling out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for the lack of any arrests. Married to Anne (Abbie Cornish) and a father of two young daughters Willoughby is well-respected by the small community. He is also suffering from terminal cancer.

The billboards cause a backlash, and Mildred's son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) are among many upset by her actions. Only a few friends, including the dwarf James (Peter Dinklage), stand by her. Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is one of Willoughby's officers. Still living with his mom, he is quick to lose his temper and harbours barely concealed racist tendencies. The billboards drive him to the edge, and tensions escalate. But with Mildred refusing to back down, events spiral in unexpected directions.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards provides biting commentary on life's volatility, and delights in feinting to one side before jumping to a previously unforeseen path. Just as soon as the narrative appears to settle down to a routine story of awakening and redemption, the stunningly sharp curves emerge, and the story shoots off into a succession of often jaw-dropping twists.

A dark rollercoaster tone forces humour and tragedy to brilliantly and uncomfortably rub shoulders, McDonagh tightly coupling life's absurdities with the inevitabilities of appalling human failings. Everything that can be expected to unfold does not, and everything that does happen is unexpected. And yet entrenched societal forces dig in, unmoved and not interested in yielding to any amount of grief, anger or levity.

The film plays with themes of justice deserved and demanded, hypocrisy in the face of responsibility, and the fragile layer of community civility cracking under a tenacious scratch. Ebbing is an economically depressed community aware of its faults but more than willing to overlook them for the pretense of harmony. Mildred's three billboards upset the apple cart, for a while not much will be the same, but in Ebbing nothing will fundamentally change.

The rural backwater setting ensures that there are no distinguished bright lights amongst the characters. While Mildred is the protagonist supposedly deserving of sympathy, McDonagh drops early hints that she is very much part of her blue collar community, her anger concealing but not eliminating her penchant for trouble. Mildred's billboard stunt is not an out-of-character action, but rather in keeping with a woman quite happy to punch back hard against whatever displeases her, including a mouthy daughter. The revelations about Mildred's true self arrive as painful and unsettling shocks, and provide the film with enormous power.

Mildred along with Chief Willoughby and officer Dixon create a trio of memorable and richly drawn characters as the interplay between the angry mother, the sick police chief and the racist cop creates the film's labyrinthine foundation. McDonagh succeeds in demonstrating the fallacies of first impressions and teases out the capacity for transformative change.

Frances McDormand evokes the ghost of her greatest role in Fargo and delivers an immense performance fuelled by acidic acrimony. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell have rarely been better, and share screen time with help from an elegantly shocking inter-character baton handoff.

The supporting characters add plenty of colour and context. Mildred's son Robbie offers an alternative window onto his mother's life, while ex-husband Charlie and his 19 year old girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving) offer both menace and some of the best comic moments. The ad agency salesperson Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the dwarf James, a local priest, and a potpourri of police officers with various personalities bring the community to vibrant life.

Thorny, disquieting, challenging and unforgettable, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a dazzling achievement.

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