It’s often missaid that films are made for current events; that something is a ‘Trump movie’ or a ‘Brexit picture’. Feature films take years to develop, and are at best usually lucky in their timeliness. Martin McDonagh has been working on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri for eight years after an inspiration that dates back another nine; it is then to our good fortune it feels entirely like a film of the moment, depicting a struggling, divided American town where good and bad behaviours exist cohabit, and injustice seems to be the defining rule. His masterful writing and several performances that are perfectly tuned to it bring about his best film yet, building on the darkly comic humanism of In Bruges and expanding it to a wider world.
McDonagh’s films have previously been exceedingly male; in the shape of the barnstorming Mildred Hayes, he provides his first female protagonist and most vibrant character to date. Mildred has suffered that cruellest of bereavements; she is a parent whose child has died before them. And not just died; teenage daughter Angela was brutally assaulted & murdered. What now fuels Mildred’s fire is that nearly a year has now passed, and no arrests – and seemingly no investigations – have been made. In an attempt to provide justice for herself and her late daughter, she hires three decrepit billboards on a back road near town, and fills them with a stunningly abrupt, accusatory message aimed at the town’s popular police chief William Willoughby. The polarised reaction to her bold-type statement ripples throughout the film, with ramifications for Mildred and those around her.
A great difficulty for so many in our separated society is how to communicate with people who have wildly different views and aims from our own. McDonagh’s outstanding script triumphs by giving examples of people who can’t do this, people who can, and people who are trying so hard to. The film excels on the difficulty of communication, especially in the context of entrenched views. The text on the titular billboards are revealed in reverse order; the revelation of the incendiary but entirely righteous first phrase is one of the brilliant film moments of recent years. And yet for all its power, it does not convince many in the town, and so Mildred must wear her cause like a suit of armour, adjusting her stance depending on who she is discussing it with. Willoughby is smart enough, understanding of her mission but unable to help; she lays out a passionate case for why he should be doing more. A portly, pusillanimous dentist who questions her actions receives much shorter shrift. The film includes several events that shake up the beer-sodden backwater that is Ebbing, including fights, a fire and a painful tragedy. Mildred combats each one with courage, staying true to her deep-felt loyalty to the daughter whose absence you can see etched on her face. McDormand and others have made the comparison between the character and John Wayne; as in many of Wayne’s films, this is a character imbued with a strong sense of what is right, regardless of what the legal (or police) position may be.
Three Billboards is not just Mildred’s story though; it is also the story of the Americans left behind from modernisation; the embittered, lonely folk in this dead-end place where punching someone is at least something to do. It’s telling that the boards Mildred takes over have been empty for thirty years and fallen into ruin; in a country built on advertising, the people of Ebbing aren’t even worth advertising to. No-one represents this separation more than Sam Rockwell’s racist cop Dixon, an ill-educated, angry man whose human decency is buried deep beneath layers of prejudice, fear and rage. Dixon develops more than any other character over the course of the film; it is Rockwell’s outstanding performance, working from McDonagh’s masterful writing, that allows us to understand the sad life of this resentful man. Some have taken against this character, suggesting any sympathy for him is excusing his inexcusable hatred for and mistreatment of people who don’t look like him. I don’t see it that way; it is a skilled writer who can create as unpleasant a person as Dixon, and then bring us to a place where we can understand their bigotry. That is not to justify his racism at all; instead McDonagh is recognising the prejudice that exists in vast swathes of America (and beyond), and placing it in the context of humanity.
This all sounds rather serious; and it is, dealing with ideas of purpose, justice, and what extent we will go to in pursuit of what we believe is right. But this is a Martin McDonagh film, so it is wickedly funny, filled with comic vignettes that make his work so enjoyable. There’s Caleb Landry Jones’ droll office clerk, two hilarious scenes with Mildred’s ex-husband’s young new girlfriend and Peter Dinklage as a townsman who is trying to woo Mildred amongst all the carnage, with delightful incongruity. As Einaudi did to the work of Shane Meadows, Carter Burwell’s solemn score, combined with some A++ soundtrack choices (The Four Tops’ Walk Away Renée is my personal highlight), give a grandeur to this grim environment. Amongst the blood and the glass and the beer there is humanity and truth; in Mildred’s valiant quest for the truth of what happened to her daughter, there is dark humour and goodness.
The film is picking up pace in awards season, with Rockwell & McDormand deservedly winning Golden Globes for acting alongside McDonagh’s Best Screenplay and of course the coveted Best Film – Drama Award. It also picked up a couple of prizes for Editing and Music at the British Independent Film Awards back in November; check out this insightful panel of five BIFA voters discussing the film, then book your tickets for its general release in the UK from January 12th!