That moment when Director, Martin McDonagh was on a bus traversing one of the Southern States of America 18 years ago, saw a couple of a billboards with cryptic messages, got inspired et voila – Oscar 2018 contender.
Following the success of In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012) and declared ‘fairly male-dominated movies’, Martin McDonagh promised a premise that would see a female on the forefront. And he definitely deliver with Frances McDormand (Fargo, 1996).
If McDonagh’s script was a recipe it would be taut, terse and tense; combined with rapier wit, compassion and poignancy in equal measure – because every great meal needs just the right balance to be a perfect dish. Artfully constructed to deceive and intrigue within the first act.
‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is about just that. But it’s the messages on the billboards that carry the film from start to end. Not without collateral damage, though. Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is a disconsolate yet determined mother who challenges the authorities of the local town in a bid to bring justice for the unsolved rape and murder of her teenage daughter.
Fast-forward several months and still no culprit, in what seems a fait accompli murder case, Mildred decides to assert her materfamilias in many ways. From the opening we’re introduced to mother who has transcended melancholy and mourning, to unapologetic fury and rage.
Driving down a road as desolate as Mildred, she observes three dilapidated billboards. And if they weren’t getting much attention before, the ensuing months sure compensate for the neglect. Irascible and impatient simply waiting for advancements in her daughter’s case, she walks into her local advertising agency, like a gunslinger moseying into a saloon, conveniently parallel to the Ebbing Police Department to negotiate a deal with firm’s red head proprietor (Caleb Landry Jones). Hayes resolves to rent the trio of billboards pasted with the following ‘RAPED WHILE DYING’, ‘AND STILL NO ARRESTS’, ‘HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?’
The billboards sets in motion a series of events that threaten the town’s insouciance, rocks the revered boat of Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and teaches his second-in-command, Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), both a bully and milquetoast, to pull up his socks and earn his badge rights. And with Dixon involved, well, let’s just say the town ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em.
Clad in no nonsense overalls topped with a macho but mini ponytail, Mildred is freighted with nothing but vengeance to exact revenge on the killer of her child. But when push comes to shove, and there’s a lot of it, all hell breaks loose when Dixon’s racist malarkey surfaces. If it wasn’t already implied before when Mildred asks: ‘How’s it going in the n****r torturing business?’ To which Dixon replies: ‘It’s persons of colour torturing!’ So we know he’s a racist, but at least has the discretion to be PC. It un-cordially invites a slew of hostile hindrances from all those affected and a surprise turn of events that thrust the case into neglect all over again, unless Dixon finally sees sense.
Any scene with Hayes guarantees the audience with virulent verbal gymnastics. Whether that’s with her Chief Willoughby, Dixon and even her still grieving son. Lest we forget the invective against the clergy: ‘Finish up your tea there, Father, and get the f**k out of my house’. That scene probably should’ve come with a disclaimer for the Holier-than-Thao. But it’s Mildred’s merciless fortitude that sets the caustic but laugh-out-loud tone for the movie and retaliates against arson on her billboards with arson at the Police Department.
Chief Willoughby is a family man with an inescapable Southern accent where idiocy is anathema to him. With problems beyond his control, in more ways than that of the justice system, you pity him. Dixon however has the foremost character arc in this narrative and just when you think you loathe him, you learn to love him.
Composer Carter Burwell’s score is the perfect accompaniment that adapts to the meandering plot with robust western fire and fury, together with wholesome country songs that you’d think Taylor Swift had a hand in what with all the pining after loved one lyrics and all. But the consummate beauty of the soundtrack is how it concludes an inconclusive story, with words that won’t make you forget how you felt when you first watch it: ‘I don’t think about you anymore’. I didn’t leave with a Buckskin Stallion, but I did leave with the blues.
Watching this tragicomedy is akin to being hit in your funny bone over and over. Stings but so darkly funny at the same time. In a word? EBIC.