Shropshire Star

Film Talk: Looking Back– Tragicomedy perfection with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Though we only featured In Bruges a few weeks ago, recent events have compelled me to once again to shine our spotlight on the work of the mighty Martin McDonagh.

Frances McDormand in 2017's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The fact that his latest film – The Banshees of Inisherin – didn't pick up a single Oscar when it was nominated for nine is a travesty. In the past however, the Academy have rightly recognised his work, as they did with this particular gem.

This one may only be six years old, yet never was a movie more destined for the mantle of 'classic', and we're going to honour it as such right here, right now.

Written, directed, and co-produced by McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is without question one of the finest flicks of the last ten years.

Starring Frances McDormand, the movie tells the story of a Missouri woman who, angry over her daughter's unsolved rape and murder, uses three advertising billboards to publicly challenge police over the lack of arrests, raising a furore in the process.

Reportedly, while travelling through the US in the late 90s, McDonagh saw a set of real-life billboards used in a similar way. He is said to have described them as "raging and painful and tragic" and was supposedly deeply affected by them, stating that the image "stayed in my mind... kept gnawing at me". This, in conjunction with a desire to create strong female characters, was reportedly what led him to write Three Billboards, and when he did so, he already had McDormand in mind for the lead.

Supposedly, McDormand was originally a little sceptical, apparently believing she was too old for the part as written, wanting McDonagh to change it to the victim's grandmother rather than her mother. McDonagh stuck to his vision, and McDormand's husband and filmmaking-royal Joel Cohen persuaded her to take the part regardless.

Three Billboards deals with cutting subject matter from the outset, and it does so with complex characters and a script infused with just the right level of McDonagh's trademark black humour.

The result is a film that is utterly compelling – humourous while heart-wrenching, and emotionally engaging until the very end.

With a cast completed by Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Željko Ivanek, Caleb Landry Jones, and Kerry Condon, McDonagh's incredible tale is brought to life by some of the best in the biz, and is one of the closest things to a perfect movie to have ever featured on this page...

It's been seven months since her daughter was raped and murdered, and still Mildred (McDormand) has seen no arrests made by the Ebbing police.

Frustrated, and wanting to spur on some action, she decides to rent out three unoccupied billboards on the outskirts of town, using them to publicly call out the town's chief of police (Harrelson) as to why no progress in the case has been made.

Law enforcement officers and townsfolk alike consider Mildred's actions a declaration of war on the police, with dentists and deputies enraged in equal measure. Some take it upon themselves to hit back at Mildred in Chief Willoughby's defence – but this is one man who needs no-one else to fight his battles.

Willoughby, with the grudging aid of racist, alcoholic deputy Jason Dixon (Rockwell), pursues the case with fresh vigour, despite its seemingly hopeless nature. However, as his ailing health leads him to make a drastic choice, it may be left for Dixon to become the unlikely hero of the tale.

Grossing $160 million at the worldwide box office, Three Billboards received widespread critical acclaim. The career-best turns of McDormand and Rockwell were particularly recognised, each of them receiving a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar for their performances (all three awards Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor respectively).

It's a rare thing for any one film to be capable of hitting the viewer on every level – making them hurt, think, laugh, gasp and even dance (the soundtrack, incidentally, is fantastic). It's rarer still for a flick that achieves this to do so without retrospectively feeling like an assault on the emotions, and somehow, Three Billboards just doesn't.

Perfect pacing, superb dialogue and exemplary characterisation solidify this one as a consummate masterpiece, and there is no billboard in the land big enough to sing its praises justly.

Well done, Mr McDonagh – you keep making them, and we'll keep watching.

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