This is once again a review for a film I’ve seen prior to its wide UK release thanks to Odeon Screen Unseen, and this time it’s a film I was able to see a month before its UK release, and one I’ve been highly anticipating. The McDonaugh brothers are probably the best directors to come out of Ireland over the past few years. Both of them have made excellent films but until now I’ve tended to prefer the films of John Michael McDonaugh, mainly The Guard and Calvary, not to say that In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths were bad but they didn’t meet the mix of dark comedy and pathos that The Guard and Calvary did. With Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri though, Martin McDonaugh has reached these highs, crafting what is easily my favourite film of his.The film follows Mildred Hayes, whose daughter, Angela, was raped and murdered several months before the events of the film, frustrated with the lack of information she’s getting from the police, and seemingly no investigation into the crime, renting out three billboards at the site where her daughter was killed highlighting the lack of progress into the investigation, calling out the Chief of Police, Willoughby, by name. As a result of the billboards, there is an increased level of resentment in the town towards Mildred, this resentment being exemplified by Dixon, one of the other officers working in the town, with the resentment in the town building up to the point of explosion over the course of the film. Now the main thing the film does right is make it so all of the characters are right and wrong in their actions, mainly in regards to Mildred, Willoughby and Dixon. For Mildred, we see the lack of attention given towards women by the police, this being made clear by Mildred being a victim of domestic violence but whose husband was never punished for his actions, but Mildred is not a nice person, she’s bitter, angry, just an overall horrible person and her actions over the course of the film go from understandable to downright reprehensible and the skill of the film is making sure that you understand and relate to every horrible action Mildred does over the course of the film. Willougbhy meanwhile is one of the more sympathetic characters in the film and his actions are the most likeable, with it being clear that he wants to carry on investigating the murder of Angela but lacks the resources to capitalise on the evidence he has. It’s also shown that he has terminal cancer and as such is we see how the town is more on his side that Mildred’s, angry that Mildred is directly calling out a dying man. The most complex character in the film though is Dixon. At the start of the film, Dixon is a thug, there being reports of him torturing a black man in prison and he is such a hateful character. Over the course of the film though, we see Dixon get redeemed, him fully seeing how much damage he has caused to people, coming face to face with the harm he has inflicted on others and it being directed back to him. Now I understand where the controversy in showing how a disgusting character can be redeemed has come from, mainly in relation to race, but I didn’t find that as much of an issue in terms of the overall character development of Dixon. Now what I’ve mentioned about the characters would make the film sound like a really powerful drama, but since this is a Martin McDonaugh film, this is filled with pitch black dark comedy, mainly in terms of the dialogue that McDonaugh has written, causing me to laugh out loud at multiple points throughout the film. Very few directors can match the skill at dark comedy that Martin McDonaugh has and with this film he has surpassed himself in this skill.
The performances meanwhile add to the brilliance of the film. Frances McDormand gives one of her best performances as Mildred. She does great work with the dark comedy in the film through her bitter attitude throughout the film, but it’s in the dramatic moments where McDormand shines, showing the level of guilt she feels, partly with the poor relationship she had with Angela, the concern that what she’s doing may be the wrong move and her frustration over all the events she has been put through, it’s a stunning performance. Woody Harrelson as Willoughby meanwhile is also excellent, showing the frustration her feels over the billboards and the lack of progress in the investigation, along with his growing fears over his cancer diagnosis. Sam Rockwell meanwhile gives one of his best performances as Dixon. At the start of the film, he shows Dixon as a complete scumbag, but over the course of the film, we see Dixon start to gain some humanity, understanding the damage he has done and the guilt and pain that Rockwell shows as the realisation hits him is incredible to watch. In terms of the other supporting performances, John Hawkes is a disturbing presence as Mildred’s ex-husband, showing a malevolent air and making him believable as a domestic abuser, Peter Dinklage as used car salesman James is a more sympathetic character, showing some affection that he has for Mildred, this affection being fairly sweet, along with there being a creepy element to it with the chemistry between Dinklage and McDormand being the right kind of awkward for the characters. For the other police officers, Zeljko Ivanek gives a good comedic air, having a good deadpan delivery for his dialogue, along with a more sympathetic air as the film goes on, whilst Clarke Peters is essentially playing Lester Freamon again, but he’s great at playing that character and is fun to watch, being the only person to act responsibly towards Dixon. We also get great performances from Lucas Hedges, showing the resentment he feels towards Mildred for forcing him to relive the murder of his sister, something he is still coming to terms with, along with showing how there is some level of affection for Mildred from him, Caleb Landry Jones and Kerry Condon give solid comedic work throughout the film, with Jones also giving some great dramatic work in his scenes with Rockwell, Abbie Cornish gets a more sympathetic performance, although her accent was a bit off, and Samara Weaving is a great comedic find, her delivering some of the funniest dialogue in the film perfectly and I’m excited to see her in more comedic roles.
On a technical level, the cinematography and production design do a great job at putting you in the environment of the film, creating a believable background for the film, particularly with the way the billboards are framed, as often as possible the billboards being seen in the background to highlight the underlying issues in the film. The music meanwhile, both the soundtrack and Carter Burwell’s score do a great job at establishing the darkly comedic tone of the film, making the film more engaging as a result.
Overall, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is as close to a perfect dark comedy as you can get. There is a strong thematic through-line throughout the film in relation to the attention given to women by the police and the redemption of horrible people, with Martin McDonaugh balancing these themes with the comedic side of the film expertly, aided by a standout ensemble cast, headed by one of Frances McDormand’s best performances.
My Rating: 5/5