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