12 January 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review

It's a really good movie.

I say this upfront because I know that parts of the following review might indicate otherwise, and I wouldn't want that to be the only thing people take away from what I'm saying here. Yes, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has problems in its approach to some of the topics it attempts to deal with - but that doesn't stop it from also being a really well-made and engaging movie that I liked a lot. It's writer/director Martin McDonagh through and through, a great script bolstered by some of the best performances you're likely to see this year, and that alone means that it's a film very much worth seeing, warts and all.

Set in the fictional town Ebbing, Missouri, we follow divorcee Mildred Hayes in the wake of the rape and murder of her daughter, Angela. Frustrated by the inability of the local police to catch her daugher's assailant, she erects three billboards outside the town that specifically take police chief William Willoughby to task about the lack of arrests - a decision that the seemingly tightknit community of Ebbing don't take kindly to, being as Willoughby is in the late stages of pancreatic cancer.

But this conflict is ultimately only half of what Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is dealing with - the other half being the violently racist Officer Dixon, who is well-known in the area for having tortured a person he had in custody (an act that was subsequently covered up by Chief Willoughby). It's here that the film stumbles - Officer Dixon might be an interesting character played perfectly by Sam Rockwell, but Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri's approach towards him and the topics of race and police brutality is... clumsy at best, to the point where you have to wonder what exactly McDonagh wanted to say with the character.

Is it that everyone is capable of change, regardless of what they've done in the past? Is it that good acts can't make up for bad? Is it that they can? Is it that racism is easily solvable, if only we try? Is it that even the worst people are nice, deep down? The vague gesturing that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes towards all these possibilities and more throughout its running time means that after just one viewing, it's impossible to say for sure exactly what McDonagh was trying to get at - and that places us in the uncomfortable position of being expected to at least somewhat root for a guy who is proud of using his power as a police officer to get away with torturing someone. It's unfortunate to say the least, and it means that while it doesn't derail the film entirely, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri definitely becomes a less well-polished movie - if not necessarily a less entertaining one - when Officer Dixon takes centre stage.

Which means that it's the first half of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that is its strongest, focusing on Mildred Hayes and Chief Willoughby as the titular billboards bring them into conflict. This is where McDonagh's script really shines, frequently veering between laugh-out-loud hilarious and devastatingly emotional without ever suffering from tonal whiplash thanks to the sheer strength of direction and the fantastic performances given by everyone involved. Woody Harrelson is great as Willoughby, injecting this not unlikeable character with an enormous amount of sympathy and humanity (maybe too much, given Willoughby's tolerance of Dixon), but naturally it's Frances McDormand who'll be receiving most of the praise here - and rightly so. She's simply incredible, a commanding presence of tightly wound grief and rage and loss and anger and newfound purpose, spitting McDonagh's best lines with the kind of delivery that would (and does) make a clergyman blush. Any awards she might win from this role are well-deserved to say the least.

How Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri sits with you is ultimately going to vary from person to person based on their interpretation of what McDonagh might've been trying to say with Dixon, and that's totally understandable given the importance and timeliness of the topics that are, at best, poorly-handled here. Assuming good intentions, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a hugely entertaining and captivating film that gives a lot of great actors the opportunity to deliver great performances - it's just a shame that the few problems it does suffer from are around such a sensitive area.

4 stars

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