Empire (Australasia) - - Contents - TERRI WHITE

Don’t worry if you didn’t see the first two ‘Bill­boards Out­side Eb­bing, Mis­souri’ flicks. You’ll pick it up right away.


DI­REC­TOR Martin Mcdon­agh

CAST Frances Mcdor­mand, Sam Rock­well, Woody Har­rel­son, Lu­cas Hedges, Clarke Peters, Ab­bie Cor­nish, Peter Din­klage

PLOT Mil­dred Hayes (Mcdor­mand) is seek­ing jus­tice for her dead daugh­ter, pro­vok­ing lo­cal po­lice — in­clud­ing sym­pa­thetic Chief Bill Wil­loughby (Har­rel­son) and racist of­fi­cer Jason Dixon (Rock­well) — into ac­tion by pay­ing for mes­sages on three gi­ant bill­boards. But will Mil­dred ever get that jus­tice, and who’ll still be stand­ing when she’s through seek­ing it?

THE THIRD FILM writ­ten and di­rected by pro­fane poet Martin Mcdon­agh is a rough med­i­ta­tion on the true na­ture of loss, grief and vengeance. Yet, it is not a tale sim­ply of loss, grief and vengeance. And it’s cer­tainly not the sim­ple tale you pre­sume it to be at heart: that of a mother’s most pri­mal pain and her re­demp­tive path away from it. Three Bill­boards Out­side Eb­bing, Mis­souri dwells and squats in the ugly pain, the very fire of the grief, mud­dy­ing pre­con­cep­tions and pre­sump­tions be­yond recog­ni­tion, while still speak­ing to both small re­al­i­ties and pro­found truths. This is Mcdon­agh at his most com­plex, paint­ing en­tirely in greys as he sur­veys the cru­el­ties born from barely buried hurts.

It starts with three bat­tered bill­boards on a road out­side of Eb­bing, Mis­souri that no­body drives down any­more. Though it ac­tu­ally be­gan seven months prior when Mil­dred Hayes’ daugh­ter was raped and burned and left for dead on the side of the road. The si­lence that has de­fined the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into her killer since has made Mil­dred (Mcdor­mand) bat­tle-hard­ened and bat­tle-ready. When we see her lay­ing down $5,000 to rent the bill­boards for a month, she’s war­rior-like in navy over­alls and a ban­dana pulled tight across her fore­head; her face, voice, her en­tire be­ing ren­dered raw by her des­per­ate thirst for jus­tice. Her mes­sages are soon writ large in 20-foot type: “Raped while dy­ing”, “Still no ar­rests” and fi­nally, “How come, Chief Wil­loughby?”

Wil­loughby (played with pained ten­der­ness by Har­rel­son) is the lo­cal po­lice chief, and the man she holds re­spon­si­ble for the lack of jus­tice, though it’s not a bur­den he alone car­ries. She blames his squad, the lo­cal news, her ex-hus­band, the world. And there, the white and the black trickle and meld as it be­comes clear that Mil­dred’s sin­gu­lar­ity is at a price. And she re­mains stead­fast even when that price in­cludes her son Robin’s (Hedges) hap­pi­ness or the health of Wil­loughby (when he shares that he has can­cer, she re­sponds that the bill­boards “won’t be as ef­fec­tive af­ter you croak”).

There are the briefest glimpses of who Mil­dred could be, but also a firm sense of res­ig­na­tion — that woman is dead, if she ever re­ally ex­isted. In her stead, there stands a griz­zled rock of a hu­man be­ing, who is noth­ing but sharp edges and solid, cold cen­tres of in­fi­nite black.

Mcdon­agh’s twisted, in­cen­di­ary, of­ten hi­lar­i­ous screen­play (his best since In Bruges) plays beau­ti­fully in Mcdor­mand’s mouth — elic­it­ing em­pa­thy when none would seem de­served, in­clud­ing a mono­logue to a lo­cal priest that is worth the ticket price alone.

Three Bill­boards isn’t just Mil­dred’s tale though — along­side her story runs that of lo­cal cop Dixon (Rock­well), a racist cop with a low IQ and com­plete dis­re­gard for civil rights. And yet some­how this man who de­serves no re­demp­tion and a woman who needs it to sur­vive (even if she doesn’t know it) are on the same path. Where the lives of th­ese two con­verge is where the soul — if not nec­es­sar­ily heart — of the film lies.

Sam Rock­well has steadily, softly built a ca­reer as a char­ac­ter ac­tor but in Dixon he cre­ates sim­ply a truly great char­ac­ter. Dixon’s arc — in a lit­tle over two hours — is re­mark­able, seem­ing­ly­im­pos­si­ble even, and yet never strains credulity. In this, and so many other ways, the film con­tin­ues to shock, stun and sur­prise un­til its very fi­nal mo­ments.

VER­DICT Funny, bru­tal and breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful. Two ex­cep­tion­ally raw lead per­for­mances, su­per­charged by a bold script from Martin Mcdon­agh, could make Three Bill­boards this year’s Awards-up­set­ter.

Frances Mcdor­mand’s Mil­dred is stead­fast in her mis­sion.

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