Thursday, 18 January 2018

Film Review - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15)

Looks like we got us a war.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri arrives in the UK with a quartet of Golden Globes, a clutch of BAFTA nominations and a hatful of Oscar hopes. The poster is already more star-strewn than an Icelandic night-sky, so you don't need me adding to the hype. I'll say only this. When the writer/director is someone as defiantly rule-trashing as Martin McDonagh, and when Frances McDormand is his lead, you should go see a film regardless of prizes. In the case of Three Billboards the less you know the more you'll enjoy, so by all means stop reading and and come back later. I'll still be here.
The derelict billboards of the movie's title are commandeered by Mildred Hayes (McDormand), a longterm resident of rural Ebbing, who has lost her daughter to a particularly appalling crime. Feeling that the local police have failed in their responsibility to investigate, she uses the advertising hoardings to call their Chief (Woody Harrelson) to account. Her actions provoke an indignant reaction from the community, not least from the Chief's dim and bigoted Deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell). 
Such is the set-up - and while the story trades off the increasing friction between Mildred and her neighbours, most of them fiercely loyal to Chief Willoughby and scandalised by Mildred's gesture, it does precisely nothing else you might expect. Pick any of the story's three central characters and try to predict the journey they'll go on before the end credits. You'll get it completely, refreshingly wrong. 
This is all due to writing that, as McDonagh poined out during a recent interview, is rooted in character rather than deliberately manipulative plot twists. Mildred and her police nemeses behave throughout in ways that ring excruciatingly or comically true. The resulting events are messy and unpredictable - laced with as much dark humour as they are with poignancy, peppered with moments of shocking violence and unexpected humanity. It's as ragged as real life, all the way to the film's divisive ending. The one violent act that remains unseen, thankfully, is that which sets the story in motion. The terrible fate of Mildred's daughter we can only imagine, along with the poor girl's mother and brother (up-and-comer Lucas Hedges). 
Frances McDormand is the tough, broken heart of the movie - reminding us, if we needed it, of what an astonishing screen presence she is. As Mildred she's moving without being sentimental and funny without being cute, holding the audience's sympathy however questionable her actions become. This is a portrait of grief hardened into anger, of a woman relentlessly seeking closure and raising hell in the process. Indications of the person she was prior to the tragedy glint with a subtlety only a truly accomplished actor can convey.
She's not alone in delivering greatness. Woody Harrelson has never been more convincing as the decent, beleaguered police chief who butts heads with Mildred. Sam Rockwell, meanwhile, gives a stand-out performance in his quietly brilliant career. As bumbling racist Dixon he's appalling and hilarious, and yet somehow still enlists our sympathy. Add to that a wealth of quality support performances (the always wonderful Peter Dinklage and Get Out's Caleb Landry Jones jump to mind) and you've got as well-acted a movie as we can hope to see in 2018. 
The broader storytelling is terrific too. McDonagh's screenplay is pithy, profane and real, with small-town shades of Manchester by the Sea (and that film's sense of a community that's been around forever). Ben Davis' cinematography is edgy at times, starkly beautiful at others, and the whole thing is edited down to a sharp focus on the main character-arcs. Meanwhile Carter Burwell's original score provides a moody compliment to the dark subject-matter, while the borrowed tunes are as varied as the movie's frequent shifts in tone.
Three Billboards is ultimately a story of one woman's quest for justice, along with its results and repercussions. Its refusal to offer easy resolutions is frustrating, deliberately so. What is does provide, however, is empathy, grim laughter and a whole lot to think about. It's also one of the most innovative dramas you're likely to see this year - or most others. 

Gut Reaction: Laughter, cruelty and compassion, all of them when least expected.

Where are the Women?: McDonagh gives Frances McDormand room to shine, in what is arguably the role of her film career. And that's having seen Fargo.

Ed's Verdict: 9/10. Another true original from the man who brought us In Bruges. Character-driven storytelling, which entertains, challenges and delves deep into our messed-up humanity. Shelve the awards buzz. Just go and enjoy it.

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