Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonagh started as a playwright and after winning an Oscar for a short film he moved into directing long features, the first two of which were the great In Bruges and Seven Psycopaths. His third film continues a trend of showing us a filmmaker adept at writing brilliant dialogue and iconic characters.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is the story of Mildred (Frances McDormand) a woman who puts up three billboards just outside of her town; the billboards challenge the town’s Chief of Police (Woody Harrelson) on why he hasn’t solved the case of Mildred’s daughter, who was raped and killed a few months back.
McDonagh as a director has not yet been fully formed. He’s a fabulous writer, and his expert cast is able to do most of his directing job for him simply with his words. But in some other aspects you can see McDonagh make some rookie mistakes, especially with some timing during editing and the pacing of his story. Other times you can see subtle details input by him that can give you goose bumps; when holding on an emotional moment, building up tension, or tricking conclusions from the audience. The overall feeling is that you are watching a director in the process of becoming himself.
The premise is very political; McDonagh’s script also looks at police brutality through one of the Ebbing’s police officers (played by the great Sam Rockwell), and his racist and abusive undertones to his job. However, when you are watching the film itself, it doesn’t feel political at all, McDonagh wants to explore the moral dilemmas of each of the situations he puts his characters in. And herein comes some disorientation for the audience.
The film opens up with Mildred paying to put up the billboards, and the subsequent two thirds of the film is a series of reactions by various characters of the town to this. Each scene is written beautifully, with some of the wittiest dialogue seen onscreen in years, but it still doesn’t wash off the feeling of redundancy as you can’t see where the film is going for more than an hour. However, things begin to pick up in the latter third and a brilliant finale that brings out some of the best performances seen from McDormand and Rockwell wraps up the film.
McDonagh has brought us a look into rural America that somehow skates past going political, and simply looks at the human lives that must survive. The brilliant cast helped by a rich script hold up another triumph for the writer-director, who further matures into one of the filmmakers to watch in the decades to come.