3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (AUS - MA15+/UK - 15/US - R)

In a word: Provocative

3 Billboards

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes and Woody Harrelson police chief Willoughby in 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. PICTURE Merrick Morton, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

 

"Shocking and at times disturbing, this film goes to dark places to explore the impact of anger, violence and even forgiveness in the face of injustice. But it's the expert performances of the actors as they bring a perfect blend of drama, wit and humor that lift the experience beyond the darkness of the subject matter."

Producer, writer and director Martin McDonagh has finally hit his stride with this provocative crime thriller. The renowned Broadway and theatre director has had moderate success with his two previous films  - In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths - but it's his latest effort - 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - which has won big at the Golden Globes and earnt seven Oscar nominations.

The award fanfare is well deserved thanks to the outstanding performances of Frances McDormand (who plays the grieving mother Mildred Hayes), Woody Harrelson (police chief Willoughby, the target of Mildred’s anger), and Sam Rockwell (Dixon, a raging bigoted but loyal policeman).

These three personalities are brought into conflict seven months after the brutal rape and death of Mildred’s daughter. With no arrest or suspects in this crime, Mildred rents the titular thee billboards on which she places a provocative message placing the blame squarely on Chief Willoughby for the lack or justice. This triggers an explosive reaction as the small town divides and tensions mount on all sides. It should be noted that strong language and brutal violence are a result of the rising anger.

Shocking and at times disturbing, this film goes to dark places to explore the impact of anger, violence and even forgiveness in the face of injustice. But it's the expert performances of the actors as they bring a perfect blend of drama, wit and humor that lift the experience beyond the darkness of the subject matter.

The characters are all given a further dimension through an exploration of their family dynamics. Mildred deals with a grieving son who would rather forget the trauma as well as an abusive ex-husband with a new trophy wife. Willoughby has the perfect nuclear family marred by the looming threat of cancer. Dixon lives alone with his mother where we see the source of his racism and brutality. By grounding the story in their family lives, we begin to empathise with them and any stereotypes we may have formed start to dissolve. Things are not always as clear as they seem and justice is not as black and white as one would hope.

Director McDonagh flirts with the idea of a Hollywood ending and I’m sure many audiences would have preferred it. But the primary purpose of this tale is to provoke thought and challenge the viewer with questions that don’t have an easy answer. What is our responsibility in the face of injustice? Should you take judgment into your own hands? What does it take to forgive those who have done you great harm?

I was told of a couple that saw this movie on a date who, after watching the film, began to argue so fiercely that the date ended miserably. This anecdote only serves to demonstrate the impact of the film, for just like Mildred’s three billboards, it seeks to provoke, divide, shock and anger. But it's the skill, intelligence and wit with which it is done that make the awards well-deserved.