Sometimes the tone of a film is simple. Bright. Playful. Dark. Brooding. Dark. Nolan-Batman-Dark. Gritty. Dark. But it is usually consistent. Usually. Inconsistent tone can be the downfall of otherwise successful films. Leaping from playful to harrowing is usually jarring for an audience. It can leave you feeling unsure of what the film is trying to tell you, what you’re supposed to be feeling. The tone of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri shifts wildly from scene to scene and even within scenes themselves. And this shifting tone, usually a stumbling block, is one of the film’s greatest strengths.
Three Billboards tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) seven months after her daughter Angela’s brutal rape and murder. Mildred, understandably, concerned that the local police have made no headway in the case, takes out advertising space along the road on which her daughter’s body was burned, calling them out. What ensues is an escalating battle between Mildred, the local populace and the police. Some people are on her side, others are against her but everyone has an opinion. The story moves slowly, carefully and purposefully showing us the motivations for Mildred, Chief of Police Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and a small cast of supporting characters.
What stands out about this film is how human it is. Even the immediate “Villain”, Willoughby, is given a chance to tell his side and the shades of grey begin to creep into the picture. Is it right to call someone out publicly even for such a public failing? Are the police doing enough? Has Mildred gone too far? Are people who are upset about a mother wanting justice for her murdered daughter selfish idiots? I know what I think, but the expert directing of Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges) doesn’t labour the position. The story, whilst extreme in some ways, feels very close to real life. Partly because each character is so perfectly sketched and each performance so brilliant that you forget you’re watching a film. Apart from the woman sitting next to me with a cold, sniffing up a storm. Despite Typhoid Mary’s best efforts the strength of McDormand’s Mildred came through. Watching a Mother mourn her child would be harrowing enough but with the circumstances of her death being so inhumane, it becomes even harder. Her knowledge that her billboards are driving people apart even within her own family, weigh heavily on her and even through the course language and eloquent dressing down of several community authority figures we can see her pain.
So, the tonal shifts I mentioned earlier are worth exploring (no spoilers, promise). Like McDonagh’s previous work, Three Billboards is very funny. But again, like his previous work there is a significant thread of darkness woven throughout. Many of the scenes with Dixon (Sam Rockwell) are filled with such perfect comedic timing that they almost take your mind off what the film is really about. “Ah, that was fun”, the viewer thinks, “I wonder what will be next, something funny, no doubt” Only to be shown a flashback from an argument between Mildred and Angela culminating in a heart wrenching exchange. It would feel so out of place in a lesser work but here the juxtaposition (my English teacher would be so proud) between comedy and drama drives both nails home even harder. Dark comedies don’t often deal with such serious matters. It’s usually safer to stick to more tasteful things such as just murder rather than murder and brutal sex crimes.
Three Billboards is a complex piece in many ways. The stories for each of the main characters are distinct and well presented. For some it’s about justice and the line between it and revenge. For some it is a redemption story, giving bad people a chance to do something good. But everyone gets an opportunity to do something. Everyone is there for a reason. There are no unnecessary parts in this machine. The early appearance of James (Peter Dinklage) pays off in another very human moment near the end. Everything feels tight and thought out, showing what can happen when someone’s vision for a film is allowed to come to life. Even the Dentist storyline that doesn’t really go anywhere serves a purpose despite being technically without an ending.
Three Billboards, unlike many films, does not feel allegorical in nature. It did make me think that there might be some threads about the nature of online backlash culture but I might be projecting somewhat here. On the face of it, it’s a fairly simple story but the joy comes from the watching the actions and their consequences manifest on screen and the complexity comes from the interactions between the converging stories. Going up against the local police probably isn’t a good idea, no. It will probably make things very difficult for you and those around you but the right thing isn’t always the easy thing. The lack of a clear villain could be a problem for a less competent film but here it just makes for a more satisfying and nuanced piece about the nature of justice and how, in real life, there is rarely a clear villain, especially in an unsolved rape and murder.
The film climaxes with a steep upward curve and then a gentle, contemplative, dark and bittersweet conclusion but I won’t give any more details than that. If you’re not already on your way to the cinema, put your shoes on and get going. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a wonderful, hilarious, sorrowful, heartbreaking and most of all human experience that I would recommend to anyone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges, one after the other.
Review by Sam Rae
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