21 January 2018

Digital & Dissected: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

| Ariel Larkey
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Befitting of its unconventional title, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is indeed an unconventional film. And that is what makes it so enjoyable. It doesn’t seek to wrap things up in a neat little bow and, just like its characters, it is complex, humane, honest, flawed and confronting. There’s a reason it was the most successful film at this week’s Golden Globe Awards, picking up Best Screenplay, Best Drama, Best Lead Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell). Such accolades inevitably extend a theatrical run. This undeniably original and entertaining film merits a look.

The story follows Mildred (Frances McDormand) in her dogged desire to solve the case of her daughter’s as yet unsolved rape and murder. Fed up with the lack of headway hitherto, she leases the three billboards leading into her small town of Ebbing, Missouri, to call out the authorities and reignite local interest from the public, the media, and, more pertinently, the police. Mildred challenges Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), in particular, and his underhanded underling, the volatile man-child Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), very much the feature’s fundamentally flawed anti-hero. The bare-bones premise of the film is intriguing enough and what ensues is most certainly and rather satisfyingly not run of the mill.

The film, although set in Missouri, was actually shot entirely in North Carolina to portray the American interior. The third outing for auteur McDonagh continues his offbeat stylings, and it runs in the family as previous credits of writer/director brother John Michael McDonagh would suggest – The Guard (2011), Calvary (2014), and War On Everyone (2016). Black comedy pervades their productions and Martin McDonagh has again delivered a bitingly quirky yet compassionately resonant drama following In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012).

Reuniting with a slew of previous collaborators – Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Zelijko Ivanek, Brendan Sexton and Amanda Warren – McDonagh’s first-time partnership with Frances McDormand in the central role of mourning mother Mildred immediately calls to mind her early roles as a defiant and tenacious woman in the Coen Brothers/McDormand shared debut Bloodwork (1984) and later as iconic Policewoman Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996). A timely tie-in with the Golden Globe’s theme of the evening this year, and echoing the overriding call to arms within a currently besieged industry, is Mildred’s feminine resilience, stoicism and tenacity. McDonagh’s casting choice is very much a tip of the hat to not only McDormand’s career, but also to two sibling maestros who pioneered a filmmaking approach. Three Billboards is very Coen Brothers-esque, and currently brothers Martin McDonagh and John Michael McDonagh stand as their most promising successors – each heirs apparent in their own right. The originality with which they infuse their work makes the mantle very much theirs to take. Here, Martin has crafted a stellar story of shifting moods and disparate individual journeys.

The performances across the board are sterling. The ever-dependable Woody Harrelson (True Detective, No Country For Old Men) is always a pleasure on screen. Sam Rockwell (Seven Psychopaths, Moon) is exceptional as Officer Dixon and has, for good reason, been acknowledged for his performance. Caleb Landry-Jones again thrives as a secondary character in Red Welby but does so here to benevolent, goofy and endearing effect as opposed to his previous malevolence as Jeremy Armitage in Get Out (2017). Unfortunately, the weakest link in the acting chain comes from Australia’s own Abbie Cornish (Somersault, Candy) due to her distractingly inconsistent accent. However, previous Canberra local Samara Weaving turns in a sharp albeit brief cameo, further consolidating her CV in Hollywood as her career and credits slowly but surely grow. Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) also stars.

A lot can be said about this film. It is a delicately balanced mess of human nature, a meandering odyssey of one woman’s quest for justice, one man’s attempt to redeem himself, and a cross-section of parochial small-town life with all of the fumbling, bumbling characters one might come across in Middle America. As with our protagonists, it is funny, it is dark, it is moving, it is challenging, it is unpredictable, and it’s bold. It’s also definitely worth your time.

Four billboards out of five.

Currently screening at Dendy Canberra, Palace Electric, Event Cinemas Manuka and Hoyts Belconnen.

Further viewing: In Bruges (2008), Seven Psychopaths (2012)

See also: Blood Simple (1984), Fargo (1996).

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