On first glance, it would be safe to assume that with the Coen Brothers announcing their venture into television, brothers John Michael and Martin McDonagh are cementing themselves as the new classic. Although working alone, currently with three films each to their name, they already have a few greats under their collective belts. However, Martin McDonagh’s latest offers not just a praising comparison to the written and directorial skill of the Coen’s; it is an achievement of a modern filmmaker who has successfully proved that he is one of a kind.
Opening with a desolate shot of three decrepit billboards aside a long, winding road; Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) drives past and see’s not just this, but three blank canvases of which she can use to vocalise her disdain for the local police force. Seven months ago, her daughter was raped and murdered, and the killer is still on the loose, as she claims that the force are too busy “torturing black folks to solve actual crimes.” Of course, the singled out police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), other officers and even townspeople take offence at Mildred’s bold statement, and a war between a mother dealing with deep loss and provincial authority ensues.
McDormand in the lead role is perhaps the main reason why the film feels like a Coen Brothers caper, but after the first act, McDonagh successfully manages to make Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feel very much his own. Mornonic comedy, despite popular belief, is actually very hard to achieve and make hilarious, but is something that this director has proved himself to be a master of ever since his 2008 comedy masterclass, In Bruges. The actors’ delivery of quippy one liners is pitch perfect every single time, and its comedy also delves deeper, handling race relations in a satirically engaging but equally mature fashion. Its humour, although impressive, isn’t the films monumental achievement; it is just so empowering and human in its portrayals. Its characters may seem unapologetic and lousy on the surface, but that may just be the point. We don’t view these characters on the surface, we don’t glance, we get to know. Even supporting characters become so much more through the realisations of their own moral backbones and subsequent actions.
Moral choice and redemption is something plaguing all of the characters, and it unveils this in a number of endlessly explosive and creative ways. After Mildred finishes her conversation with advertising agent Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), she spies a beetle on the windowsill, flailing around on its back and pushes it onto its legs ever so delicately with a charitable finger. The film is rich in signifiers that express her constant agony of being reminded of her poor daughter’s demise, but also help to suggest her attentiveness to creatures in need, which is something McDonagh handles impressively and ambiguously in the films resolution. In a particularly impactful moment, Mildred is sitting underneath one of the billboards, giving the appearance of a mother grieving beneath a colossal tombstone, and a deer appears to keep her company. She addresses the deers significance in a solitary monologue, but breathtakingly announces that the creature is not perfect enough to be her reincarnated daughter. It’s beautiful; McDonagh not only employs such symbolism but is able have his characters comment on it without it being cringe-inducingly self aware, which may be a problem with some actors but not at all for McDormand, who makes it absolutely riveting.
It is without a doubt McDormand’s most captivating and astounding role to date. Mildred is a character study of so much pain and determination, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing such a diverse and difficult role. Sam Rockwell in the role of dummy cop, Dixon, is just as fantastic, and along with other stellar performances, elevate the film in regards to boasting the greatest ensemble cast of the year. Landry Jones definitely needs the chance to once again portray a protagonist – he has worked with a number of wonderful directorial talent lately, and has held his own as one of the most promising actors working today.
It is hard to pick fault with anyone’s work here, but a few minor elements provide tiny cracks in an otherwise perfect piece of cinema. In one particular bar scene, the dialogue can be a tad hard to decipher, and admittedly by no fault of any individual involved in production, audiences who have seen the film’s trailer may find the first act irritatingly familiar. Perhaps the biggest misstep is the use of flashback to show an argument Mildred has with her daughter, as it’s arguable that she may have been better left faceless; a mysterious summation of all the victims who have suffered such nightmarish crime. However, the juxtaposition of the warmth of the past and the bleak reality of the future makes for a powerful scene nonetheless. Three billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like a real firm grip on a style that the director has been working on and experimenting with in his two previous films, and in its treatment of many genres, stands as a perfect balance of everything cinematic.