Film Review: Francis McDormand is unstoppable in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (USA, 2017)

Fearlessness and eagle-eyed justice drive Mildred Hayes as she takes an entire town’s police squad to task for failing to properly investigate her daughter’s rape and murder in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Martin McDonagh’s black comedy is all it has been hyped up to be: sharp, wry, nuanced, clever, hilarious and utterly compelling as Francis McDormand, the unstoppable Hayes, gives a career-best performance in a film full of career-best performances. And that’s saying a lot; Hayes’ grief-fueled anger is meticulously molded by the veteran actor into something both effecting and poignant, cutting straight through to real-life frustrations with the ineffectiveness of those in power, but knowingly falling into the trappings of myopic outrage to deliver a strong, heartfelt message of pain and empathy.

Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) is so depressed he wants to forget his sister’s brutal end, but that doesn’t stop his divorced mother from renting three dilapidated billboards along a rarely used road just outside of the fictional town of Ebbing, selling whatever she can to pay advertising head Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones in very fine form) to erect three bold messages: “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests”, and “How Come Chief Willoughby?”. They become symbols which amplify her private pain and frustrations, which she feels are being ignored by the police, to shame the town’s most powerful into nutting up and finding her daughter’s killer. Cue allegory to social media, social justice and the supposed utility of public shaming.

The ploy works; Mildred attracts the attention of the entire police force, including earnest Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), but also the ire of her fellow townsfolk who want to bury such a tragedy and move on from it with a false sense of closure. Though no one is as angry as Willoughby fan numero uno: Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who begins a fierce but clumsy rivalry with the grieving mother despite being considered somewhat of a village idiot. Rockwell, who along with Harrelson worked with McDonagh on the excellent Seven Psychopaths, is often just as mesmerising on-screen as McDormand, as he gets to embody a contemptuous loser before gradually, and carefully, teasing out an endearing redemption arc that highlights the problem with Mildred’s self-righteous, black-and-white fury.

The story takes genuinely surprising twists and turns, but always maintains a certain level of sharpness, particularly with the dialogue. It sure helps that McDonagh has managed to bring together a superlative cast, including entertaining supports from the likes of the endlessly underrated Clarke Peters and Peter Dinklage, to give true power to his kinetic screenplay which features dialogue even more outrageous and memorable than his previous films. Even seemingly innocuous sentences are arranged in thoughtful, entertaining ways, speaking to the high level of detail put into the energetic and exceptionally witty script.

Though the film ultimately belongs to McDormand and her powerhouse portrayal of a mother on a war path against a seat of privilege and patriarchy, highlighting the actor’s immense talent as she propels Mildred through dichotic waves of emotions, expressing despair with resolve, self-doubt with unwavering self-belief, insolence with nervousness – it’s a benchmark performance that demands to be heard both on and off the screen. McDonagh tailor-made this character for McDormand, and it’s this beautiful intersection of two undeniable creative minds that ultimately takes this film from highly entertaining black comedy to pure masterpiece.

Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will be released in Australia from January 1st 2018