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Norfolk Tourism Awards

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is brazenly funny thriller of rightous anger

PUBLISHED: 16:30 11 January 2018 | UPDATED: 08:51 15 January 2018

Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Merrick Morton

Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Merrick Morton

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Salty, quick-fire dialogue pepper Martin McDonagh’s blackly comic thriller that pits the righteous anger of vigilante parent Frances McDormand against her local police force in a fictional midwestern town.

Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby and Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Merrick MortonWoody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby and Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Merrick Morton

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15)

****

Three Billboards. Outside Ebbing. Missouri. That’s a hell of a title. You may get tongue tied trying to say it to acquaintances, but it demands attention. What kind of a film goes around calling itself that?

Previously writer/director Martin McDonagh has struggled to pair up titles with films. In Bruges easily outshone its title, but Seven Psychopaths lagged well behind its given name. This one is the equal of its content.

The three billboards in question read: “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” “How come, Sheriff Willoughby?”

This gesture by grieving mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) to try and goad the police force under police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into action might reasonably have been expected to generate some support, but reason is in short supply in Ebbing.

Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Merrick MortonFrances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Merrick Morton

Plus Mildred is a confrontational and unforgiving type with a lacerating tongue, so she doesn’t win much sympathy.

McDonagh made his name writing for the stage and if nothing else that teaches you how to structure a piece of writing and this is beautifully put together. Even a seemingly casual remark about a fat dentist will have a pay off a few scenes later.

This film is funny, brazenly funny but still fearsome. There is a palpable sense of dread, you keep expecting terrible things to happen and sometimes they do, but they are rarely the terrible things you expected. Once set in motion, tragedies usually make their ascent to disaster with a relentless efficiency, all those little ironies going off in orderly succession.

McDonagh though constantly re-rails it, sends it off in more curious directions. One of the best things about it is the way it refuses to accept that once the mechanisms of tragedy have kicked in, a disaster is inevitable.

It’s a remarkably rich work which, by luck or by design, deals with a number of strong contemporary issues in America: the trigger-happy police force and a fractured population, who once convinced of a position will refuse to hear anything contrary.

Previously I considered Martin to be the lesser of the Marvellous McDonagh brothers. His younger sibling John Michael seemed like a much purer cinematic voice, but after the wonders of The Guard and Calvary, he trainwrecked with War on Everyone.

Sam Rockwell as Jason Dixon and Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Merrick MortonSam Rockwell as Jason Dixon and Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox/Merrick Morton

In Three Billboards Martin shows he’s a playwright with excellent film sense. If I was nitpicking I’d say that there is some very obvious and distracting CGI in the scene with a deer and the film could do with a stronger music score. Hard to believe the music here was the work of the normally excellent Carter Burwell.

It’s a tremendous cast, but it’s the woman at the centre of it that you will remember. Since her debut in Blood Simple more than 30 years ago, McDormand has enjoyed a tremendous career filled with fine performances. But let’s be honest, when you think of her, you think Fargo. All the other stuff may occur to you later, and that other stuff will mostly be top quality, but Fargo was the one she will be forever identified. Until now.

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