Bleak, Harrowing and Raw But Witty and Humane - McDonagh's One -Off

You don’t often sit down to watch a film about the aftermath of a murder expecting to laugh. There’s various adjectives that would usually be associated with a film of this subject matter: bleak, harrowing, raw. Those words could certainly be used to describe Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but that would be to overlook its wit and humanity.

The wit becomes less surprising when you discover that Three Billboards is written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Through films like In Bruges and plays like The Cripple of Inishmaan, McDonagh has become renowned for his singular tone and blistering dark humour. Three Billboards is perhaps the most fully-realised demonstration of those qualities. It follows Mildred Hayes, who rents out the titular billboards seven months after her daughter’s murder. They read: “Raped While Dying” “And Still No Arrests?” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”. Over the course of two hours, these humble wooden signs spark a fuse in Mildred's small Missouri town.

Frances McDormand is on career-best form as Mildred. She’s an earthy, no-nonsense renegade who’s done with taking no for an answer and doesn’t care who she offends. She’s a woman on a mission, like 2018’s answer to John Wayne. In quiet moments, though, we see the compassion she keeps stifled in her quest for justice. In strained interactions with her son, too, we see the emotional toll that her quest takes. And unlike traditional narratives, we’re under no illusion that succeeding in this quest will magic away the hero’s troubles – Mildred is a woman irreparably damaged. 

this is a film not just about one woman, but a community

Nevertheless, at a time when women are still expected to be constantly polite, a film that explores a woman’s frustration and rage is a rare wonder. Indeed, Three Billboards could have focused entirely on Mildred and been completely satisfying. Instead, however, it broadens its scope to cover the lives of sympathetic police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and not-so-sympathetic officer Dixon (a racist numbskull played to perfection by Sam Rockwell). At first, it’s tempting to question whether McDonagh is wandering; whether a playwright’s focus on character is coming at the expense of pace and plot. 

Everything soon falls back into place, though. We realise that this is a film not just about one woman, but a community, with the billboards acting as a jumping-off point that causes the lives of its three central characters to intertwine with narrative nimbleness. At a time of continued friction between police and citizens in America, Mildred’s stance both heightens her neighbour’s prejudices and challenges their preconceptions. Dixon, in particular, embodies the story’s murky morality – on paper he’s a boo-worthy villain, yet here he’s afforded nuance and empathy. Together, he and Mildred become the oddest cinematic double act since Harold and Maude.

Through these compromised characters, whose lives combine staggering brutality with fleeting moments of tenderness, the film evolves into a poignant tale of redemption. Without ever getting schmaltzy, it explores how we let go of anger, and how it’s possible to cling onto humanity even in the midst of unimaginable trauma. By serving up such potent truths while squeezing in more than the occasional laugh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri proves itself as a true one-off.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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