Humor and Tragedy as the Defining Features of Human Existence: A Review of ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

As a former reviewer for a Croatian film-dedicated website, I used to see a lot of inferior filmmaking efforts. The local multiplex gave me a press accreditation—who needs money when you can watch movies for free, right?—and since I was young and stupid enough to think I had all the time in the world, nothing kept me from seeing some of the more pointless Hollywood pictures of the last decade. It’s to no wonder then, after all the “torture” I idealistically endured as a volunteer critic, that when a great film comes along, I lose my mind and transform into a hyperbole-spitting little factory of enthusiasm. My review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film I had the great pleasure of seeing during this year’s brilliant Camerimage Internation Film Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland, is going to be your classic three-hyperbole review. So let’s get the first one off the table: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is, without any doubt whatsoever, the best film of the year. British playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh stepped onto the stage with an Academy Award-winning short film called Six Shooter, after which he achieved his feature film debut with In Bruges in 2008. The black comedy set in the picturesque Belgian town was met with critical acclaim, and in my judgment presented one of the most impressive filmmaking debuts I’ve ever seen. The two things that really distinguished McDonagh’s first film from the work of many of his peers was the hilarious script and brilliant casting: Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes were so well-suited for their roles it was impossible to imagine anyone else in those shoes. The same two characteristics McDonagh managed to transfer into his third film: what makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri such a first-class treat is the screenplay and the hugely talented actors and actresses that bring it to life. McDonagh’s film is an often hilarious and mostly very amusing black comedy which successfully and somehow very casually pits belly-aching humor against gut-wrenching tragedy. It’s enough to know the main outline of the story to see the main foundation of the storyline is complete, devastating tragedy. (When you get to know other characters, you realize Mildred’s personal loss is far from being the only tragic aspect of the story.) But it’s the way McDonagh deals with it that makes all of it worth repeated watching.

Driving past three old billboards standing forgotten beside a practically abandoned road leading to the town of Ebbing, local resident Mildred Hayes suddenly stops the car and stares at the derelict posts that lost their marketable value when the town gained access to the highway. She drives directly to the advertising agency and, to the clerk’s astonishment, buys the right to put up posters. It soon becomes clear where her motivation lies: less than a year ago, her teenage daughter was raped and murdered, and since the case was still unsolved, she decided to use the billboards to remind the police department, and especially Bill, the well-liked and good-natured police chief, to do their jobs. In a matter of hours, Mildred becomes the main talk of the town. Fellow residents, while repeatedly stating the amount of compassion and understanding they have for Mildred’s situation, can’t seem to support her decision to resort to such radical solutions to convey her message, using the well-known argument of “don’t you know this won’t bring your girl back” to force her to stand down. Mildred is many things, but a push-over is clearly not one of them, and neither the general lack of public support nor the powerful efforts of the police department and their dumbest (and most damaged) officer Dixon can do much about her unflinching resolve, no matter how many people get hurt in the process.

Surprisingly enough, in a film about a middle-aged woman’s fight with the ineffective police department and violent, racist hillbillies in their lines, there are really no heroes or antiheroes. A day after Mildred put up the billboards directly accusing the local police chief of not caring enough to do his job properly, he pays her a visit and they have a brief conversation on the swings in her backyard. “You know I’m sick, right?” he asks her, hoping sympathy might just be enough for her to back down from the whole billboard business. “The whole town knows,” she replies casually, “but it would be far less effective if I did it after you croaked, wouldn’t it?” I may be paraphrasing here, but you get the picture. Mildred is damaged beyond repair, just like the Chief (although in a different way), just like her son, just like the “nigger torturing” Dixon, a hurt man shaped by the circumstances in life he had no control over. Nothing is black or white, there are no defined villains, no heroes, everybody’s fragile, cracked, human—it’s possible to sympathize with each and every character, just like it’s possible to criticize everyone. The world isn’t knights and monsters and life isn’t happy-ever-after-ish. Things get messy, tragedies happen, homes are destroyed and people are shattered to pieces. It’s the experience of life that the film manages to convey, and it somehow feels authentic, real, honest to the bone.

As I already mentioned, the cast is perfect, and this brings us to our second hyperbole of the night. Frances McDormand is the single best American actress of the last couple of decades. Her performance of a broken, but painfully stubborn woman is nothing short of captivating. Her sense for comedy is astounding, and she doesn’t need words to display her genius: it’s all in the eyes, facial expressions, gestures. When she does use lines from the script, like the great monologue about the Church and the shared responsibility of all priests for the crimes that only some of them committed, it’s not surprising to see a whole auditorium of the festival’s largest screening room applaud and cheer. She’s more than capable of carrying the film from beginning to end, but does get excellent help from Woody Harrelson in the role of police chief Bill and Sam Rockwell as the racist dumbass who, through most of the first half of the film, serves as a wonderful comic relief character. Peter Dinklage might not have a huge role here, but he’s expectedly charming, convincing and overall nothing less than a great asset. There’s one particular moment with McDormand and Harrelson in the interrogation room that’s simply sublime.

The themes of grief, anger, the unfairness of it all, comprise the heart of McDonagh’s picture. I’ve honestly never seen such a dark film presented in such an entertaining way, where moments of laughing out loud are suddenly replaced by tearful silences, only to make you crack up again mere seconds later. McDormand, great writing and the reigning motif of cause and effect aren’t the only things connecting McDonagh’s film with Fargo, as long-time Coen brothers’ collaborator Carter Burwell provides the score. “If you’re noticing my cinematography, I’ve gone wrong somehow,” said cinematographer Ben Davis while announcing the film. Subtle, unobtrusive and completely in the service of the story as it is, you completely forget there are cameras out there and that you’re not actually watching ordinary people trying to survive. The way I see it, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film about the complete randomness of life. “Are we really all alone and no one gives a shit what we do to each other?” asks Mildred at one point. Parents shouldn’t bury their children, rape should never happen, cancer should be erased from the world. And yet, you can’t help grinning at McDonagh’s dialogues, hilarious comebacks and all of the little unexpected bits of brilliance he throws at you every once in a while. It’s that bitter-sweet mixture that makes both life and this film worth seeing through.

And there is no third hyperbole. I might have exaggerated a bit.

Written by Sven Mikulec

Screenwriter must-read: Martin McDonagh’s screenplay for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). For more information, visit: Fox Searchlight proudly presents for your consideration.

Loader Loading...
EAD Logo Taking too long?

Reload Reload document
| Open Open in new tab

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photographed by Merrick Morton © Blueprint Pictures, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 20th Century Fox. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations:

Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in

Spread the love