In Bruges (2008) director Martin McDonagh has nailed what could be a contender for Best Picture at the 90th Academy Awards ceremony with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and while there’s still plenty of time for someone else to clench Oscar, that doesn’t stop the Englishman’s latest script from being just about everything you could ask for in a screenplay.
It’s not as out-and-out a comedy as the director’s last two features, but Three Billboards still has all of McDonagh’s unforgettable wit. And as the title suggests, you should be sure to expect something a little idiosyncratic or different. In fact, at first, it almost seems as if McDonagh has put together a rather moody drama.
The first thing we see in this movie is the androgynous-looking Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) chugging along a forgotten road in thick, split pea soup fog. At the foot of a green valley, she pulls up in her station wagon and stares long and hard at three giant billboards in a row along the road. Country music plays softly in the background, and the camera follows her gaze to what looks like a cemetery of old-school style advertising.
The scene is filled with a sense of longing and a wonderful momentary contemplation of a world that is being blotted out by more recent digital substitutes, and also a part of middle America that has been cut out by larger, more modern highways that suck people away from them. While this is deep and all, McDonagh doesn’t indulge in the retrospection contemplation for long.
Seconds after this scene, Mildred swaggers into the local advertising company. In a badass slow-mo she saunters in, while music that suggests something not unlike a spaghetti western shoot out is about to go down plays in the background. Except this time, only verbal bullets are fired, and soon Mildred is barking at the company manager in a series of brilliant one-liners. The put-downs in this film are really exceptional, and when two sparring characters come up against each other, there are few places you’d rather be than watching this film.
The story achieves an incredible mix between significant social critique, moving drama, and perfect comedy. This may sound like those things could in no way be linked, but this movie pulls it off in a way that feels like a darkly themed novel. There’s a deep-seated sadness about the wrongs of the world, but at the same time there’s this defiant, almost shrill squeal of laughter against the darkness and despair of McDonagh’s fictional world. There is humor in the thoughts, actions and lives of Mildred and Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), as they slowly go to war over the case of Mildred’s brutally murdered daughter.
The best thing about Three Billboards is that it never does what you think it’s going to do. Ever. With genuinely impressive creativity and uneasiness, it’s constantly coming at you from left field with immensely funny quips and unexpected character actions that you could never see coming. McDonagh arms every scene with surprises and shapes all the shocks into something that is totally perfectly formed and watchable. Three Billboards is a shining example for screenwriters everywhere and it has the lowest body county for a McDonagh film (2).