Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review

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Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Image property of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

 

“This time, the chick ain’t losing”

Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson & Sam Rockwell

So far from Martin McDonagh we’ve had a hitman’s Christmas holiday, followed by a soul searching road movie with legitimate psychopaths. ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is a huge tonal departure from these eccentricities however, in favour of focusing upon social commentary. A shift which darkens the tone past any of McDonagh’s previous works, moving from black comedy to outright tragedy.

In terms of plot, this is the strongest piece of work from the Irish director yet. His multifaceted narrative gracefully introduces each new player, while tackling difficult topics in a unique way. Watching the A-list cast, led wonderfully by Coen Brothers favourite Frances McDormand, unravel this engrossing tale of retribution is stunning. The emotional nuances of nearly every character lending sympathy to many different figures, exposing internalised flaws in each. For example, Woody Harrelson’s police chief Willoughby, whom we first meet through the titular billboards is painted as a brutal and unsympathetic man. Soon after though, we learn just enough to not completely excuse him but understand his logic and empathise with his reasoning. There are a lot of redemptive arcs throughout ‘Three Billboards,’ and while Willoughby’s and Mildred’s (Frances McDormand) are near perfect, there’s one which is very misjudged. To say which character would be a spoiler, but he’s never shown as anything but abhorrently violent and racist throughout, so the sudden change to hero in the final moments feels very bizarre. The argument McDonagh makes of it being an examination of nature or nurture doesn’t excuse it either.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI

Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Image property Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The treatment of certain issues, including police brutality against people of colour, is equally haphazard. Several scenes are played for laughs at the expense of minority figures- including a wasted use of Peter Dinklage, where he appears to serve no purpose but being the butt of several height jokes. The case could be made that this is dark comedy, so risky content is par for the course. This however feels more like lazy writing. McDoangh believes it’s enough to be cruel about a grouping of people, and then claim it’s showing awareness to social issues. The constant torrent of discriminatory slurs doesn’t help either, resulting in several scenes feeling childish instead of uncomfortable or darkly comic.

Overall, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is an infuriating film which could be brilliant. For every moment of great character development or intriguing plot direction, shallow representation or questionable scripting choices get in the way. If you are used to McDonagh’s style, you’ll find a lot to love here. But, it may be a little too on the nose for the uninitiated. It’s interesting to see this film taking so many awards nominations this season, because it is going to be highly controversial upon release.

‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is released Friday 12 January nationwide.

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