Part drama part crime caper, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a magnificent and eccentric blend of realism and absurdity. From Martin McDonagh, writer director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, it’s already tipped for Oscar success with nine nominations at this year’s BAFTAs and four wins at the Golden Globes already in the bag.
It shares its dark and wry sense humour with the rest of McDonagh’s oeuvre but Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has more heart, its imperfect, tormented characters encapsulating the human experience. For this, particularly its unabashed presentation of a racist police officer played with comedy and a twinge of misery by the marvellous Sam Rockwell, the film has attracted a degree of controversy. Indeed, its lack of a clear moral message is unconventional for an awards season contender. The film’s open ending leaves us uncertain about the journey its characters are on. It’s what makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri so magnetic both dramatically and emotionally.
The story centres on Mildred (Frances McDormand), a grieving mother frustrated with the lack of progress made by the local police investigating her daughter’s rape and murder. She rents three local billboards to embarrass and spur them into action. The billboards spark a complicated chain reaction and, as Mildred’s vengeful schemes escalate, the film brings to light the best and worst of everyone involved.
It’s for Frances McDormand’s intelligent and perceptive performance that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is most notable. Mildred is tough but underneath her determined, bullying surface she’s guilt ridden and sad. When McDormand lets the mask drop, crumbling into hopelessness, it is heartbreaking. Equally brilliant are her dazzling moments of sarcasm and wit.
McDonagh elicits a profusion of superb performances from his supporting cast - from Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage and John Hawkes to Sandy Martin as the overbearing mother of the racist and impressionable Officer Dixon - thanks to which Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri delivers perfect moments of comedy, tragedy and sadness. Far from being empty, the film’s open ending and moral ambiguity pose ethical questions only the audience can answer.