Midwest Masterpiece

Midwest Masterpiece

Sometimes a film comes along that feels just right for the here and now. Martin McDonagh, the Irish playwright who has previously written and directed two films, In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012), penned the wondrous script for his new film eight years ago. And yet Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – which has just set itself as the frontrunner in this year’s awards-season, winning four Golden Globes – is a movie that belongs to the present.

Set in the small Missouri town, the backdrop to McDonagh’s story echoes the all-too-numerous incidents of police brutality and racial prejudice that have occurred in the US in the recent past. Memories of the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, and shootings in Missouri, stir. In the foreground, Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a mother in suffering eternal anguish after her daughter was raped and murdered and the body burnt.

That was seven months prior to the events of the movie; when the film begins, Mildred takes matters into her own hands. Hiring the aforementioned tatty billboards, sitting unused on the outskirts of town, she directs a pointed message towards the town’s law-enforcer Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). “Still no arrests?” the first reads. “Raped while dying” says the last. It’s a bold beginning, and McDonagh’s script doesn’t stop there.

Toying with elements of the western, Three Billboards… takes consistently surprising turns. Even the smaller roles are finally crafted, each with their own arc, from Mildred’s former husband (John Hawkes) to her potential new suitor (Peter Dinklage). But it is Harrelson’s Sheriff and his knucklehead deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) that truly surprise. Just when you think these characters are one thing, they reveal themselves to be something quite different.

Three Billboards… is not a whodunit, although McDonagh sprinkles red herrings, possibly even introducing us to the killer in a couple of gripping scenes. Yet easy resolutions are avoided in a story that never telegraphs its intentions. Written with extreme skill – every line feels polished until it shines – it’s a deep-seated meditation on violence, vengeance, masculine ego and female strength. The performances, particularly McDormand and Rockwell, are exemplary. It’s a masterful, thrilling work.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens in cinemas on 12 January. For more information, visit: www.foxsearchlight.com.

James Mottram

1. Still from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.