PUBLISHED 23 JAN 2018
Martin McDonagh put his signature stamp on cinema with the devilishly entertaining IN BRUGES (2008). After SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012) ultimately fell short of the expectations, the director has a new offering that had been gaining plenty of attention now that we are in awards season. And rightly so. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) is by no means an easy watch. The difficult subject matter strikes a chord with the current focus of calling out domestic abuse and sexual assault as well as tackling police brutality and racism.
The premise is simple: seven months after the abduction, rape and murder of Angela Hayes and with no arrests or case closure in sight, her mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) rents three dilapidated billboards outside of the town to call out William Willoughby, the chief of police (Woody Harrelson). This act puts Mildred at odds with a town who adore their chief and she mounts a war against the police department in her pursuit of justice. Although it sounds like a stereotypical rape/revenge thriller, it is far from it. THREE BILLBOARDS plays out more like a feature length character analysis of the current social climate in America. And it does so to hard-hitting effect.
Frances McDormand's Mildred is a far cry from her role as Marge Gunderson in FARGO (1996). She spits each venomous insult she can summon with such intensity. One curse-filled rant at a TV presenter sticks out in a wonderfully lyrical way. The dynamic between Mildred and Chief Willoughby is fascinating. While they are at odds over the investigation, they are souls of a similar nature. It makes for excellent screen time between the two actors.
But the real stand-out performance is Sam Rockwell who plays the ignorant racist, xenophobic and idiotic Officer Dixon to Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby. He commits heinous crimes across the course of the film but we are left with contrasting opinions of his character. He is something of an antagonist, spouting hate that has only stemmed from living with his narrow-minded mother (wonderfully caustic Sandy Martin). Dixon quite happily beats up minorities in the town and is teased about torturing a young black man during an interrogation. Throughout the near two hour run time, the officer slowly learns how to function properly within society’s norms. This is a stellar performance from Sam Rockwell.
Make no mistake, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is a thoroughly captivating film. But the film’s treatment of race and violence seems skewed. There are many cries for retribution throughout the story, but there seems to be no resolution for minorities. And not just race. Peter Dinklage’s James, the town drunk, is constantly berated for his dwarfism and there is little justice for the abuse he constantly receives. It is refreshing to see Dinklage in a role outside of GAME OF THRONES (2011) however. While there is a spectacular amount of character development for Dixon, there is ultimately no specific apology. Sure, he goes through a literal crucible of fire, but thematically he has no life changing consequences for his past crimes. It does feel as if the town of Ebbing is extremely broken up about the death of a white girl, but has no problem with the rife racism, brutality and xenophobia that are so deeply rooted within the town. Perhaps that in itself is an overlooked undercurrent of the film. Regardless, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is a gripping thriller.
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