Wow, what a way to start my movie year!
I got to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ahead of its UK release. I knew going in that it dealt with some difficult subject matter and I was prepared. But this is bowl-me-over powerful.
The three billboards of the title are used by grieving mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) to demand why the police have failed to arrest her daughter’s killer. The chief of police (Woody Harrelson) is surprisingly sympathetic to her considering she called him out in such a public way. He tries to explain why they have made no arrests but she’s too angry to hear reason. Others are less understanding. It’s a small town. People take sides and tensions escalate into violence and worse violence.
But two things lift this above – far above – the standard small-town-big-battle plot.
First, it’s hilariously funny. A dark humour, sure, but done really well. An example: Chief Willoughby confesses yo Mildred that he is dying (cancer), hoping she will take the billboards down in sympathy. She shrugs and points out that most of the town is already aware of it. He expresses surprise that she still put her billboards up, knowing how sick he is. Her respontheyi didn’t think calling you out would be effective after you croak. It’s blunt, snarky and very funny in the moment.
And the second thing is the sheer complexity. Every character is three dimensional. Almost every character is sympathetic at some point and almost every character is a total jerk at some point, too. It’s not a whodunnit and I wasn’t expecting it to be, but a third of the way into the film I was sure that one character was either guilty or covering for the killer. But it doesn’t play out that way and I was genuinely surprised when the character I judged guilty had a completely different arc in the last third.
All in all, it’s a powerful film. A realistic study of small town life and the way things can so easily escalate out of control.