Poster boy

Martin McDon­agh’s Three Bill­boards Out­side Eb­bing, Mis­souri, is a screen­writ­ers’ mas­ter­class

Esquire (UK) - - Culture -

If you’ve ever pro­cras­ti­nated over a film idea of your own, you’ll know that those screen­writ­ing books you’ve still got in your mum’s loft of­ten talk about the im­por­tance of the open­ing se­quence in set­ting up the drama to come. It’s hard to re­mem­ber a tighter ex­e­cu­tion of this than the first min­utes of Three Bill­boards Out­side Eb­bing, Mis­souri.

Frances McDor­mand pulls over on an empty coun­try road and looks up at — you guessed it — three bill­boards, that have clearly not seen ac­tion in a long time. She bites her nails, an idea form­ing in her head — as we soon learn — to call out the lo­cal two-bit po­lice force for fail­ing to find her daugh­ter’s killer. Through this sim­ple set-up, ev­ery­thing fol­lows. Some shit’s go­ing to go down for sure. And we’re in.

Ir­ish/Bri­tish writer-di­rec­tor Martin McDon­agh (In Bruges, Seven Psy­chopaths) wrote the screen­play that way, too. He won­dered who might have been des­per­ate enough to take such

a de­ci­sion, de­cided on a mother, and let the ac­tion un­fold as he wrote, scene by scene. As he puts it, just fol­low­ing her around town.

Where did he get such a neat idea as the bill­boards? By gazing out the win­dow of a Greyhound bus at just the right time to see the ex­act same thing, of course, over 15 years ago in a long-for­got­ten fly­over state. He banked it as an idea to re­turn to and, well, here we all are. No sur­prises that he had McDor­mand in mind from the start. It’s hard to imag­ine who else could don Mil­dred’s boiler suit and ban­dana in quite such a de­lib­er­ately un­sym­pa­thetic way and still hold the show to­gether.

Her ad­ver­tis­ing strat­egy gets the whole town go­ing, from Woody Har­rel­son’s po­lice chief and the al­ways watch­able Sam Rock­well’s red­neck cop who lives with his mum, right through to the kids at her son’s school who she’s keen on kick­ing in the shins.

The tone switches wildly and re­peat­edly from tragedy to slap­stick in what af­ter a few more films we might start to call McDon­agh-style — abu­sive one-lin­ers, sud­den bursts of vi­o­lence and un­likely re­demp­tion — but he walks the tightrope and this is his most pol­ished and co­he­sive film.

With its small-town set­ting, sump­tu­ous cine­matog­ra­phy and odd­ball char­ac­ters it’s enough to get the Coen brothers more than a lit­tle narked.

— Three Bill­boards Out­side Eb­bing, Mis­souri is out in cine­mas on 12 Jan­uary

Frances McDor­mand as the mad-as-hell mother Mil­dred in Three Bill­boards Out­side Eb­bing, Mis­souri

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