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LIFF Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

James Wright reviews one of the standout films of this year's festival circuit

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Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures


Director: Martin McDonagh

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

Length: 1hr 55m

Rating: 15

This review comes from the Leeds International Film Festival 2017.

It takes a skilled writer to induce in its audience uncontrollable laughter whilst at the same time cause that same audience to question the laughter exploding from within. Martin McDonagh, I am pleased to report, is a skilled writer. Not that this is in any way unexpected, as those familiar with his previous work (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) will testify; however, the emotional rollercoaster of Three Billboards takes us to whole new levels of narrative turbulence, and it is a joy to behold.

Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The serious and the comedic are not so much balanced as blended in a furious milkshake of vengeance and oddball characters. Centre-stage is Mildred (Frances McDormand), a mother who rents out the eponymous signage as a protest of sorts against an unsolved police case. Predictably this stirs the pot, both with the police themselves (starring Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell) and the local community at large, and that's really all you need to know about the plot

Off the bat, the three central actors are doing some exceptional work here. McDormand as the sharp-tongued mother, driven by anger and incensed with the sense of injustice, slips into the role quite seamlessly. Her line delivery and the way she holds herself as this ageing yet determined ball of energy are extremely believable. Woody Harrelson plays a police chief with aplomb and Sam Rockwell as the oddball extraordinaire is fantastic and bolsters belief that he is one of the most criminally underrated actors working today (Moon, anyone?). Both police officers are layered with inner and outer conflict, and McDonagh explores this thoroughly, making full use of the acting skills available to him. It would be no surprise to see some acting Oscar nods coming this way, particularly for McDormand.

When your central trio is so strong, it can be a tall task for the rest of the ensemble to hit the same level, and unfortunately the task does indeed prove too tall for Three Billboards. Everyone is solid, don't get me wrong, but noticeably weaker. It's not a major problem and did very little to lessen the film, but it is worth noting nonetheless. McDonagh's dialogue suffers a similar fate. Because his scripts are so tight and every word and line delivery are meticulously crafted and loaded with meaning and emotion, any tiny bit of slack sticks out like a sore thumb. Again, these sore thumbs can be counted on one hand, but it is more a testament to the calibre of the rest of the film that these sore thumbs are even noticed in the first place.

Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Perhaps Three Billboards' greatest strength is the way in which it acknowledges serious issues (e.g. racism) but then moves on without dealing with them or exploring them or even condemning them in any meaningful way. This is, I think, indicative of the world that we live in today, and it plays very much as an indictment of today's socio-political climate; a climate that recognises evil yet whose attempts to do anything about it are undercut by the unspoken belief that relativist truth rules, i.e. just because I think racism is wrong doesn't necessarily mean that it is wrong.

What is also clever and pleasing about the film is its structure as a whole canonical script. It is edited beautifully and paced well and the majority of the jokes would only work precisely at the moment that they occur in the overall plot. This gives real value to the comedy, even as we inevitably begin to question exactly why we are laughing and whether or not these reasons are adequate grounds to question our own moral compasses (spoilers: they are).

Overall this film is a brilliant, powerful and genuine dark comedy. Seeing the film at Leeds International Film Festival with a packed crowd was a real treat, and the cinema experience should be one to remember. The violence and bad language may put off some but if you managed to stomach McDonagh's previous work, then Three Billboards should just about be palatable. If you are ready to simultaneously howl with laughter and anger, please go and see this when it releases wide in the new year. You will not be disappointed.

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