London Film Festival: ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ Review

It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.

Calvin Law reviews the festival’s closing film.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri differentiates itself from the rest of Martin McDonagh’s work by being arguably his least self-referential film to date – no arguments over what constitutes a shootout here. It is a dark and brooding film, taking on a difficult subject matter; and I’m glad to say it succeeds completely. Three Billboards is a film driven by anger begetting greater anger, never one-note in tone, and the palatable fury is as hilarious and poignant as it is biting and incisive. Though he skips the references, McDonagh’s familiar style remains evident in the film’s absurdist comedy, surreal dream-like sequences, and self-aware digressions on language (a hilarious argument about the correct terminology for police torture is particularly memorable).

We follow Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a small-town lady with a heavy burden on her soul. Nine months after the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, with no culprits or leads in sight, Mildred decides to take the law in her own hands – so to speak. Renting three long-dilapidated billboards on the outskirts of the county, she calls out the police force for their incompetence and lack of concern regarding her daughter’s case. This puts her at odds not just with the local authorities but with the entire community of Ebbing, Missouri who revere them, especially Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). What begins as the discontent of locals and irritation among the cops escalates between Mildred and the anti-billboards movement, led by the racist, unpredictable man-child Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell).

As the local priest puts it, the townspeople are all with Mildred on finding the killer of her daughter, but ‘no one is with you on those billboards’. Not that Mildred cares. Like Marge Gunderson in Fargo, Mildred desires justice, and she is far less concerned for the feelings of others. One of the trickiest hurdles the film faces is to make our intentionally abrasive, cold protagonist engaging rather than off-putting. McDormand’s lifetime of collaborations with the Coen Brothers – who also have a penchant for writing difficult but sympathetic main characters – have more than prepared her for this challenge. In her juiciest role in a while, McDormand takes it by her biting wit and acidic tongue, and devours it with aplomb.

McDonagh’s script is as brilliant as you’d expect, as much a wordsmith with the Midwestern dialect as the Irish and Los Angeles tongue, and delivered perfectly by McDormand. Whether comparing the Catholic Church to street gangs, gamely chatting with a lovelorn suitor (an endearing Peter Dinklage), delivering justice to obnoxious teenagers in the most painful way, or dealing with a particularly threatening dentist, she’s a hoot. But in her heavier moments she is harrowing. The film requires her, within single scenes, to shift from drama to comedy to that fine line in between. You never feel a whiplash as this ball-busting paragon of justice morphs into a concerned motherly figure. She’s up for every challenge, every step of the way.

The rest of the cast have the equal challenge of not being overshadowed by its central performance, and acquit themselves beautifully in support of her. It helps that McDormand has always been the most generous of character actresses, and strikes up great chemistry with her onscreen son Robbie (Manchester by the Sea‘s Lucas Hedges), and Caleb Landry Jones, who gives an unexpectedly heartwarming turn as enthusiastic advertising executive Red. Dinklage, John Hawkes as Mildred’s vitriolic ex-husband, and Clarke Peters as a city cop all make the most of limited screentime. Even the likes of Kerry Condon, Samara Weaving and McDonagh regular Željko Ivanek make an impression with some memorable, hilarious moments. Of the ensemble, it’s Abbie Cornish who gets the short end of the straw in a somewhat thankless role as Willoughby’s wife, but she’s perfectly fine as well.

It’s Harrelson and Rockwell, of course, who are the stars of the supporting cast. Harrelson is a comic gem and a heartfelt presence as a man willing to do whatever it takes to find justice, equal parts annoyed and admiring of Mildred’s efforts. Rockwell is tremendous, playing up the uncouth redneck cop’s racist leanings and violent antics to darkly comical effect, and ultimately takes his character in an unexpected direction. Like McDormand, he’s giving career-best work here, and come awards season I hope both their names are in contention. As always, McDonagh allows actors to act out scenes in an almost theatrical style, while leaving enough stylistic touches to make it great cinema experience. Great musical sequences – a blend of Carter Burwell’s lovely score and Motown tunes – stick in your mind afterwards, accompanied by an unforgettable tracking shot culminating in a shocking act of violence.

The ending, without spoiling anything, seems designed to be divisive. Rather than showing and keeping the narrative going, we end on an ambiguous note. Honestly, I think it is one of the film’s most admirable choices. There are no easy answers for Mildred, and the audience is never given the expected way out, which is part of the beauty of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It is a strange and unusual journey we follow Mildred on, and all one can do is express the sentiments of one of her few loyal friends: ‘you go, girl’.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri had its UK premiere at London Film Festival on October 15th. Watch the trailer below.

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