Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

1hr 55mins | Rated R16 | Violence, rape themes, suicide & offensive language.

Starring: Peter Dinklage, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, Zeljko Ivanek, Nick Searcy, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Martin McDonagh

The Venice Film Festival erupted with rapturous admiration at the premiere of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The crime film, which was four times marked by spontaneous applause from the watching press corps, is the pinnacle of McDonagh’s directorial career so far.
Where the British playwright’s previous work (which includes In Bruges, from 2008) has mostly been ironic and smart-alecky in tone, Three Billboards is a remarkable maturation, boasting tear-jerking melancholy, a real-world milieu and richly complex characters. First among these is the heroine, Mildred Hayes, played with virtuoso shadings by Frances McDormand.
Hayes is a no-nonsense, quick-witted mom out to avenge the rape and murder of her only daughter seven months previously in the eponymous Missouri town. She hatches a left-field plan to spur the police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into action by detailing her daughter’s case in giant black lettering on the town’s disused billboards.
But this only pushes her into dangerous, and increasingly violent, conflict with Willoughby’s colleagues, specifically the racist hothead Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). So far, so postmodern western noir (bit of Red Rock West, bit of Oliver Stone’s U Turn).
And yet, the revelation here is the sheer depth of character that McDonagh and McDormand have created. Hayes is seemingly, often within the same tiny dramatic beats, deeply caring, broken by grief, simmering with rage (her fabulously feral confrontation with two school bullies is not to be missed) and quietly tormented by fear (her ex-husband, played by John Hawkes, is a domestic abuser). Best of all she is capable of delivering the kind of savvy, audience-pleasing monologues that can bring hardened hacks to their feet.
Harrelson’s Willoughby is equally complex, and perhaps surprisingly is also the emotional soul of the film. Dying from pancreatic cancer, Willoughby is soft and regretful, and pleads with those around him to embrace the world with love and compassion. He’s played by Harrelson with an undertow of hangdog sadness that is heartbreaking.
And yes, there’s the usual stuff too. McDonagh, ever the playwright, likes his literary nods, and liberally sprinkles the film with gags about the use of “beget”, the meaning of “defamation”, and the rudest line in Oscar Wilde.
Plus, there’s violence aplenty and blood spattered punch-ups. But they’re just decoration now, familiar divertissements in a film of impeccable creative choices.
The Times
5 Stars

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