15 June 2024

Film Review – Three Billboards, Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

As Mildred Hayes drives into her small town of Ebbing, Missouri, she spots three dishevelled billboards and stops. We know she has an idea, but we don’t know why or what. She marches into an advertising agency and asks if she can rent the billboard to print her own message. What appears is a brief, but an incredibly controversial message. ‘Raped while dying, And still, no arrests, How come, Chief Willoughby?’. In so few words, she has managed to challenge the entire authority of the town, and the country. She is enraged at the police force, and their negligence towards solving the case of her murdered daughter, to which no justice has been brought. She has found a way that means she cannot be ignored. The rest of the film happens as a consequence of these billboards, and it will challenge all your expectations.

Mildred Hayes was a small town, working-class mother until her daughter was brutally raped and murdered. Almost a year later, she has had no closure. Her daughter’s killer remains at large, no closer to being caught, and the police seem to be slowly but surely forgetting, punishing people for crimes that are less deserving of the iron fist. But she will not allow them to disregard her or her daughter anymore. She takes on her new role as a mother of the murdered girl with ferocity, hell-bent on revenge and what she believes to be fair. The scapegoat in her operation is, unfortunately, a sympathetic character, Chief Willoughby, who also happens to be dying of cancer (a fact which doesn’t deter Mildred’s thirst for blood). His protégée is a dangerously stupid, racist cop, who cannot understand why this bitch is so crazy.

Frances McDormand won best actress for her role in this film and deserves every bit of praise she received, which was in no shortage. She is spellbinding as the tough, badass mother, who will not let anyone or anything stop her in her quest for what she feels is right. The character never lacks the raw emotion that it so needs. We never forget that beneath the wrath is an unfathomable layer of grief and sadness. Her fury is merely a weapon, used to shut those feelings out. If she stops, it’ll kill her. So she keeps going, dressed in her navy blue overalls and bandana, looking like some sort of warrior. She is truly wonderful, and even if you hate the film, it is worth watching simply for her performance

The most powerful moments, however, come when she lets the façade of impenetrable anger falter. There is a scene in which she is confronted by a deer, which is so profoundly moving, the first display of true softness in her character showing through the cracks. Just when it’s about to take over, she toughens up again, and vengeful mother comes back. Another moment of incredible humanity occurs between Mildred and Chief Willoughby, the first time she is confronted with the seriousness of his illness. Immediately, the back and forth insults directed at one another cease to exist, and they become disarmingly human. No longer is she grieving mother and he negligent policeman to fight ‘til the death, she is a person and he is ill.

The secondary characters are forces to be reckoned with, too. Sam Rockwell plays Dixon with a stroke of genius, making him at once incredibly repulsive, but also inspiring brief moments of sympathy. For what initially appears as a character to laugh at and loathe, embodying the small-minded prejudice that is so dangerous, he becomes something else. Harrellson plays Chief Willoughby with his undeniable likability, to the point where even though we know he is guilty of negligence, we still empathise with him in that perhaps he is doing all he could, and perhaps our heroine’s anger is unfairly focused at him. Also not to be overlooked are the characters of Mildred’s son and ex-husband, adding wonderful layers to the past that we don’t see.

What we are left with is a film that takes an entirely different trajectory that we thought it would. It is not about solving the murder, or finding who did it, it’s about our characters learning to deal with the injustices, deal with their bad hands in life, and perhaps coming together in an unlikely unison. Whilst revenge, fury, and violence play a huge part in the plot, it is also about humanity, but in a sort of warped moral universe. The characters are so brilliantly written, and acted, in fact, writer Martin McDonagh summed it up perfectly by saying ‘One of the things I like about Mildred is that she’s not a perfect hero. Conversely, some of her enemies aren’t all bad either.’ This is exactly what this film made me think, who are the heroes and who are the villains? The lines are brilliantly blurred.

Romy Somerset

Crime, Drama | USA, 2017 | 15 | 21st May 2018 (DVD) | Fox Searchlight Pictures | Dir.Martin McDonagh | Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish

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