Martin McDonagh burst onto the cinema scene in 2008 with the brilliant In Bruges. That film was profane, funny, dark and tragic. However, his follow-up Seven Psychopaths was a disappointment, a Tarantino rip-off without the heart of Bruges. Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri is his latest effort and it has been a big hit on the festival circuit. It recently won the Audience Award at Toronto, which is the award that most of the recent Best Picture Oscar Winners took home. At LIFF 31, the film went down brilliantly, and indeed took home the festival audience award. Deservedly so.
Three Billboards tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose daughter was murdered and the killer never found. She challenges the local law enforcement – led by Sherriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his brutal subordinate Dixon (Sam Rockwell) – with messages she writes on the titular billboards. This leads to a clash that leaves the entire town in the crossfire.
This is the best film of the festival and the best film of the year so far. No other this year has exposed so many different emotions, and involved so many tones and twists as seamlessly as this. Some have pursued a genre brilliantly (Good Time and Blade Runner 2049 are two that spring to mind) but none have tackled so much and succeeded so emphatically. Three Billboards will have you guffawing one minute and gripping the arms of your chair in suspense the next and it never feels lurching or uneven.
The performances are also magnificent. McDormand is a towering presence, her crusade for justice, sympathetic at times, bordering on the selfish and deranged at others. She isn’t a clear cut heroine and at times it is very difficult to get a handle on her unpredictability which makes her fascinating to watch. However, despite how entertainingly no-nonsense she is, McDonagh gives Mildred a core of maternal kindness and sensitivity that balances out her more harsh actions.
Woody Harrelson is also brilliant and also gives his character a depth that is unexpected. His devotion to his family balances out his general laziness in his job. He is playing a more likeable version of his character in True Detective with a lot of the world weariness that made his performance in Edge of Seventeen so entertaining. Maybe this isn’t so much of a stretch for Harelson but he fits the role perfectly. John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage make entertaining appearances but haven’t got the screen time to make much of an impact.
The star player is Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is a great character actor and is brilliant in almost every film he appears in. However, Three Billboards gives him the role of a lifetime and he sinks his teeth into it with glee. Dixon is an utterly mesmerising character whose brutality is astonishing but is born out of ignorance. He acts the way he does because that’s how he sees the role of the police and his place within it. Rockwell is hilarious but he can be truly frightening too. His character’s journey is expertly sketched by him and the Best Supporting Actor Oscar is his to lose.
Mildred’s precise and powerful prose is what gives the film its propulsive, angry energy. The script tackles, racism, police brutality, the Catholic Church child abuse scandals, attitudes to women, and much more. It is the sheer ambition of the screenplay and how well it holds together that is astonishing. Every mark that McDonagh aims for is hit perfectly and with wit and intelligence.
Overall, Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri is the perfect film to bring LIFF 31 to a close. It is a real crowd pleaser and the audible reaction of the audience showed they were gripped all the way through. The performances, particularly by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell are amongst the best of the year. This is an unmissable piece of cinema and left the audience excited for the next year of cinema.
I would just like to say thank you to the LIFF 31 team who made the festival a real joy for us to be a part of. The line-up was superb and we will be releasing our “Best of the Fest” picks for films to look forward to.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri was screened as part of LIFF 31. Image source: Blackfilm.com