Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri movie review: A raging masterpiece that defines our times. 5 stars

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 
Director – Martin McDonagh
Cast – Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
Rating – 5/5

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an anomaly. It shouldn’t exist. There is not a single moment in its less than two-hour runtime that feels like something you’ve already seen, or experienced, or have had relayed to you by a pompous friend. And as the world becomes more hopeless and trips to cinema end more often in disappointment than joy, this is a sign straight from above – there is magic to be found still; it’s out there, somewhere, waiting for you to make a mistake.

Sure, on the surface, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri might remind you of something by Coen Brothers – star Frances McDormand, who, with Mildred Hayes, has given Marge Gunderson a companion for life, isn’t the only connective tissue – but despite these strictly superficial similarities it is as much a product of a singular voice – that of writer-director Martin McDonagh – than, say, No Country for Old Men is a Coen Brothers movie.

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in a still from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Three Billboards – we’re going to have to abbreviate henceforth, for obvious reasons – is a real movie, filled with real, complex characters that go on personal and collective journeys. Unlike most years, when the Oscars race usually boils down to one mainstream film against an indie, 2018 is different. We have a selection of fine smaller films exchanging hesitant looks, and wondering, “Is this it?” And each of them – be it Three Billboards, or Call Me By Your Name, or The Shape of Water, or Lady Bird, or Phantom Thread – is defined by one virtue: Empathy, something the world desperately needs more of, now more than ever.

Films these days don’t seem to spend enough time developing characters; it’s all about arriving at the next big moment and hitting mandated beats. And you’d be hard pressed to find another movie this year – or any other year – that challenges the norm more aggressively. The gigantic leap of faith that Three Billboards demands of its audience – bigger, I’d say, than what is required of you to accept the central romance in The Shape of Water – is almost unheard of these days.

So often, you can almost imagine directors – or more likely, studios – frantic at the thought of losing the audience for even a minute because of a, let’s say, difficult scene. So often, we see movies flirt with greatness only to falter at key moments, retreating into the safety of familiarity. But not here. Not in Ebbing, Missouri.

Frances McDormand could have easily had a career as celebrated as that of Meryl Streep.

The movie tells the story of the insular small town deep in the heart of Trump territory, and the many lost souls whose lives are brought together after one particularly tragic incident. A grieving mother (played by the electrifying Frances McDormand), furious at the inaction surrounding the investigation into the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, erects three billboards along a forgotten road. In the signs, which she rents out for a year, she questions local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) directly, and demands answers. “Raped while dying,” the signs say, “And still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Right now, the conversation within the film community is overwhelmingly about the cultural turning point we’re experiencing with regards to stories about women, and the marginalised. There is no way Three Billboards will ever have the sort of impact movies such as Wonder Woman, or more recently, Black Panther will. But would you believe it, three billboards – just like the ones in the movie – have started popping up around the world. While some demand reform in American gun laws, another, outside London’s Grenfell tower questions, “71 dead. And still no arrests? How Come?”

Sounds like a movement, doesn’t it?

Frances McDormand and Peter Dinklage in a still from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Quietly, McDonagh has done so much for dwarf actors.

Three Billboards has a lot on its mind – child abuse, domestic abuse, racism, corruption, sexuality, religion, gender – that on multiple occasions, it almost seems to be bursting at the seams – with a rage that is nearly impossible to find anymore, and when witnessed, impossible to ignore, or forget.

It could be argued that McDonagh has bitten off more than he can chew – both his previous features were ambitious, but nowhere near as ambitious as this. And this is coming from someone who would ten times out of ten pick In Bruges as one of his favourite movies of the last decade. But here, McDonagh sets the bar so impossibly high for himself that it’s a bit of a shock that he succeeds at all. The overwhelming consensus, wisely, would be to avoid making jokes about rape. And it would be just as wise to not expect audiences to sympathise with racists. But both things happen in this movie. You’re going to be laughing in a story about death – violent, sickening death, and sexual violence – and by the end you’re going to be rooting for a character that embodies the worst mankind has to offer.

These are delicate themes, and the slightest bad decision can destroy a movie (at best), and careers (at worst). But McDonagh isn’t interested in half measures. He isn’t interested in writing within templates. To make great art, the artist must put everything on the line. And everyone involved in this picture – from Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, who will win Oscars, to Carter Burwell, whose soft piano cushions some of the film’s fury – is aiming for greatness. And as always, McDonagh insists that we, as a people, despite our general unpleasantness, can still be redeemed. One person at a time. He’s going to start at the bottom and work his way to the top.

Like his previous movies, Three Billboards strives for such a microscopic sweet spot tonally that the fact that it not only finds it, but sustains it for two hours, is miraculous. It not only aspires towards greatness, but confronts it, screams at it, and when it has everyone’s attention, revels in it. It’s a profane and profound masterpiece that will evolve into a time capsule of sorts, when things get better. Bring your children.