This 2017 black comedy is written, produced, and directed by Martin McDonagh and stars Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage.
8 months after the rape and murder of her daughter in the town of Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred Hayes (McDormand) rents three billboards on a stretch of road near her home that read, in sequence, “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests?” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”.
Sherriff Bill Willoughby (Harrelson) and Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell) have failed to find a suspect to the Hayes murder, and feel more pressure because of the billboards, despite support from the townsfolk at the hostility of Mildred’s actions.
Yet the billboards will bring out the worst and best in those involved, forcing them to take stock of their situation and what they perceive to be important in the grand scheme of things. One thing is for sure, the billboards are a catalyst for bigger things…
I have nothing against “indie” films. While it isn’t my targeted genre of choice for films, I’m constantly surprised how, on the whole, many of them impress me and surprise me. Maybe it’s the immediate whoo-haa they generate with bucket loads of awards and acclaim for something that, when watched, is good but not “a masterpiece” or “stunning” or “the film of our generation” etc. It’s this immediate arse-kissery of indie films that puts me right off.
Yet for 2018 I made a New Year resolution; to watch more indie films after all that and see if my view can be changed.
First up was ‘Three Billboards…’, a title that just rolls off your tongue. On the whole, it was a wonderful slice of dark comedy, laced with some powerful drama and an interesting story. Take away all the arse-kissery and I enjoyed it for what is was. It’s not a masterpiece, by any means, but it certainly is a well-produced and acted drama.
McDormand plays a grieving mother forced to take drastic action in the search for answers about her daughter’s rape and murder, left unsolved. Erecting three billboards with a blunt question that forces everyone affected to try and answer it and deal with the consequences. I’ve seen McDormand in little else, but here I was won over by her no-nonsense attitude; foul mouthed when she needs to be, but tough as nails constantly and never doubting what she does or why she has done it.
Her persona evokes a giggly-nervousness when she squares up to everyone from the billboard rental agency to the chief of police. She is hurting, and she wants answers, and she is dealing with her depressed son and ex-husband and his new beau on the side too. You don’t get to mince a performance like this, and McDormand doesn’t. She’s raw, honest and wonderful to watch and root for in her passionate quest for answers. She’s a mother; that’s her single motivation and it’s completely understandable.
Harrelson and Rockwell surprised me greatly in their role as Ebbing police. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting to admire Harrelson’s character so much and invest in his personal journey, and also like Rockwell too – despite his major flaws and traits that make him, by the end of it, human also taking a journey. They are three quality actors who react and bounce off each other, and don’t need to ham up their roles – just play them straight and honest, and they hook you in. I was, and found each of them engrossing.
With support from Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish and Peter Dinklage, everyone is affected by the billboards in some way. Be it in a positive or negative light, it’s a glimpse into what shakes ordinary towns and ordinary townsfolk when events are taken out of their control and push them into much darker, dangerous territory but never lose their humanity. They aren’t monsters.
But this is not a film that loses itself in the otherwise grim situation we find ourselves in. There is lots of dark humour on offer where you find yourself chuckling for what could be the wrong reason, but it’s so well played out, that’s the beauty of dark comedy. Nothing stupid or played for laughs, just natural actions, reactions and emotions – it’s the honesty that makes it relatable, humorous and emotional.
Set around the quaint fictional town of Ebbing (filmed across North Carolina), everything is subtle in the production, from Ben Davis’ cinematography of a tight community and tranquil country, to the even tighter and well-paced writing and direction by Martin McDonagh. If indie films help cast and crew really channel their intended message and performances, then it’s certainly a genre to support.
While the outcome seems to be rushed and is wrapped up in an all too convenient way for me that seemed to u-turn on what I thought could or would happen for the sake of a “fixed resolution”, the journey to it is the reward over the pay-off for me. It’s a journey not just of a mother, a sheriff or an officer all with hidden flaws and fears, but of a community. It’s dark, raw and emotional yet amusing for all the right reasons. No gimmicks, just story.
Well done, indie. Score one to you this year.