BFI LFF: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Michael McDonagh’s five-star drama laced with humour featuring a gloriously Oscar-worthy performance by Frances McDormand.

The Medium is the Message

by Alexa Dalby

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Frances McDormand as magnificent as Mildred Hayes, a middle-aged force of nature, an avenging angel dressed in a boiler suit and bandana. Seven months after her daughter Angela was raped and murdered, there’s been no police progress on finding her killer, so Mildred rents three giant billboards on the road out of the sleepy midwest town with messages intended to shame the local police chief Sheriff Willoughby (a fatherly, shrewd Woody Harrelson) into action.

But the thing is, in this beautifully written screenplay by director Michael McDonagh, nothing is quite as it seems on the surface, because the town is full of many-layered characters, whose layers it gradually peels off. Willoughby is suffering with surprising grace from cancer and he is loved by the locals, who disapprove of Mildred’s actions, even though they sympathise with her loss. He tolerates his none-too-bright, incompetent, racist and brutal assistant (lovely moving performance from Sam Rockwell), who has his own idea of what constitutes law enforcement. It involves throwing someone out of a window to teach them a lesson but he also discovers – to his own surprise as well as ours – the ability to learn a lesson himself.

Mildred’s son (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea) is affected by the fallout from his mother’s actions and the split with his father. Mildred’s ex-husband (John Hawkes) has left her, though not necessarily very fulfillingly, for a 19-year-old. James (Peter Dinklage), a midget, wants to date Mildred, but he reveals a clear-eyed take on how things stand. Red (Caleb Landry Jones) is the very young owner of the advertising agency that rents Mildred the billboard and who suffers the consequences and Clarke Peters is the new chief in town, who tries to restore some kind of order.

Mildred is driven by grief and desperation, she’s got the balls to face down her critics and she just doesn’t care what she does or says to make her point. Despite the tragic reason for her behaviour, it feels joyously liberating to see a woman behaving so ‘badly’ and so pleasingly foul-mouthed. McDormand’s characterisation is so rich and original, possibly her best since Fargo, it’s surely Oscar-worthy – particularly when we see in reverie-like flashback Mildred’s relationship with her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton), warts and all.

There’s debate, drama, a lot of humour as well as harshness, and original characters that take the story to unexpected places that are not plot twists but seem to arise naturally out of their own complex life. It’s a wonderful film that deserves all the praise it gets.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri premiered in the UK at the 61st BFI London Film Festival.

BFI London Film Festival 2017

Join the discussion