THREE Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a raucous comedy drama, centred around Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a mother who picks a flight with her local police department. Mildred blames Police Chief Willoughby for failing to find her daughter’s murderer. So she tries to goad him into action by pasting confrontational slogans on three abandoned billboards outside of town. Chaos ensues.
Despite the difficulties inherent in finding comedy in that premise, Three Billboards managed to be both the funniest and the darkest black comedy that I’ve seen in a long time. The greatest strength of the film lies, unsurprisingly, in its ability to pull off almost frictionless changes of tone – from comic-book violence to visceral bar fights; from frivolous one-liners to incisive social satire.
Scriptwriter Martin McDonagh’s character development was also polished and unobtrusive. For most of the film, the mother of police officer Jason Dixon is flinty and unrepentantly redneck. Yet you won’t bat an eyelid when the time comes to see her vulnerable side. It’s easy to buy into the offscreen existence of the characters too, not least because there are elements in each of their backstories that are hinted at but never fully developed. One gets the impression, for example, that Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a repressed homosexual; but this is left under the surface, and never gets explicitly addressed.
One thing that lets Three Billboards down is its attempts at sensitive moments: witness Mildred’s cliched reactions to a fuzzy CGI deer. Likewise, the ‘Mildred makes her slippers talk to each other’ scene succeeded only in reinforcing the impression that Mildred is borderline insane. But wherever the characters’ emotionality is fierce and half-raw, the film shines. Mildred’s post-row reconciliation with son Robbie is believable and heart-warming, not to mention funny in a way that belies the scene’s simplicity.
The film’s spiritual core is Woody Harrelson’s implausibly articulate Chief Willoughby. One quibble I had with the script was Willoughby’s pre-sex dialogue with his wife Anne, played by Abbie Cornish (twenty years Harrelson’s junior). Anne’s sceptical rebuff “No we’re not” gets the answer “Yes we are” from Willoughby in an exchange that verges on the misogynist so far as I’m concerned. This wouldn’t be so bad if Chief Willoughby wasn’t in all other respects the only non-flawed character in Three Billboards; so much the movie’s resident moral saint that he latterly gets to be its narrator. But if you’re uncomfortable with risqué dialogue getting played for laughs, Three Billboards probably isn’t the film for you anyway. Phrases that get bandied about include: ‘fags’; the N-word; ‘fat little Mexican boys’; and ‘town midget’ – I’m not even sure if Peter Dinklage’s character gets given another name.
What I liked most about Three Billboards was that for all its social commentary and moments of introspection, it felt like a film without a moral. McDonagh’s script isn’t one that tries to ‘give us answers’. The film’s first priority is to make us laugh; and after that it’s more concerned with posing provocative questions than answering them. If you’re happy to judge it by these standards, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is definitely worth a watch.
See it at the Savoy Theatre, Monmouth from Friday 16th to Thursday 22nd of February.