I had the privilege of seeing Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (TBOEM) knowing only that it was Oscar-nominated and nothing at all about its plot. I’ll write as spoiler-free as possible, because lack of foreknowledge hugely added to my enjoyment of a stunningly good film.
It’s no spoiler to say the film opens with a beautiful image of the three advertising billboards in question, gradually coming into view at the side of a largely deserted Missouri road. The long-abandoned fading ads, set amongst their rural backdrop, immediately evoke the Midwest paintings of Grant Wood and set the scene for what turns out to be a far from sleepy backwater.
The smalltown story that unfolds centres around Mildred Hayes (played by the always brilliant, but arguably never more so than here, Frances McDormand) - a mother consumed with grief, rage and guilt over the death of her teenage daughter seven months prior.
Hayes is on a one-woman personal crusade to force the Ebbing police department to do more to investigate her daughter’s death. The focus of her ire is Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, similarly at the top of his game), who is having to deal with his own personal tragedy.
The biggest surprise about the film is that it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny throughout its two hours or so running time. This is down to the pitch-perfect script as much as the superb comic timing and delivery of its cast. It will be a travesty if writer-director Martin McDonagh doesn’t win Best Original Screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards (not that I’ve seen all of the other nominees, or that it matters what the Academy thinks, but I’ll say it anyway - because it’s brilliant).
As with all the very best screenplays, the dialogue and interplay is so enjoyable and effortless, you’re already looking forward to watching it again, and hearing bits you may have missed the first time, even before the film has finished. Any film that interrupts a tense scene with a hilarious conversation about the likelihood of whether or not another character would really say a word like ‘begets’ is clearly a cut above .
While you’re still chuckling away at something, TBOEM will suddenly leave your heart in pieces on the floor. Profoundly moving at times, I’ve never before seen a film that jumps between the two extremes of emotion so frequently, plausibly and effortlessly.
McDormand and Harrelson aside, the supporting cast are also excellent, notably Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent, the legendary Miles Finch in Elf and, of course, Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones) and, especially, Sam Rockwell as racist police officer Dixon.
The only slightly bum note in the entire film (and l’m really picking hairs here) is Abbie Cornish as Annie, Sheriff Willoughby’s wife - whose accent in one key scene in particular flits alarmingly between Missouri, Merchant Ivory English and Crocodile Dundee Aussie.
The undoubted star of the show, though, is McDormand. Has she ever made a bad film? Her portrayal of Mildred is reminiscent of her performance as Olive Kitteridge, the central character in the acclaimed HBO miniseries of the same name about a misanthropic but well-meaning housewife.
Mildred is a turbo-charged version of Olive. She is someone who doesn’t take prisoners and there are no lengths she won’t go to get what she wants. Her profane, direct way of talking is both gripping and, more often than not, insanely funny.
Mildred’s behaviour is at times quite appalling. The beauty of the script, and McDormand’s performance, is that - however far she may seemingly have crossed the line - there is always sympathy and empathy for her decision-making.
TBOEM’s beautifully judged ending wraps everything up nicely, but not too perfectly. Despite all of the tragedy you’ve just witnessed there is still hope, and darkness. Unmissable.