Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

‘Anger begets anger,’ says 19-year-old Penelope in this wonderful film.

Penelope is the new young girl-friend of wife-beater Charlie, estranged husband of Mildred Hayes, whose bitter anger over the rape and murder of their daughter – Angela – is the reason for the billboards.

Ebbing (not a real place), Missouri (a real place) is like Manchester by the Sea, last year’s film about grief in small-town America and how it touches, impacts, destroys and sometimes heals the lives of those left behind.

Angela’s death is unsolved and the local police – led by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) – appear to Mildred to have abandoned hope and given up efforts to find her killer. Outside town, on a largely disused high-way are three enormous, abandoned and unused advertising billboards and Mildred sells Charlie’s trailer in order to raise the money to pay for her messages to be placed on them.

  • ‘Raped while dying’ – says the first
  • ‘Still no arrests’ – says the second
  • ‘How come Chief Willoughby?’ – says the third

Once up and once seen, the billboards and their message – with their giant black letters on a blood red background – shocks and polarises the town. The rest of the film charts the arc of Mildred’s grief, interspersed with moments of horrifying violence, some on her part, some on the part of others, including police officer Jason Dixon – a red-neck, racist, inarticulate bully-boy Mommy’s boy – until a strange kind of calm and catharsis falls on them all. Gratifyingly and unlike so many films, there is no pat and comfortable ending, no simple message that justice always prevails – you walk out into the night wondering whether, after such sorrow and anger, anything can ever (or should ever) be the same again.

Not everyone makes it to the end of the film alive and it would be wrong to give away these secrets – death when it comes is horrifying and unexpected. The violence is shocking, visceral, in your face (often literally), but seldom achieves much other than to – as Penelope says – beget more anger. Unlike the cartoon violence in a 12a film like Dunkirk – where many people are killed but few are hurt – there is real hurt in this film, in more ways than one.

Some describe the film as a black comedy and there are some wonderful funny lines but I did not see it as a comedy, black or otherwise. To me, it was a dissection of grief, the benefits and dis-benefits of anger, the under-currents and disputes of small-town America, the horror that lies just beneath the surface of this beautiful green state.

Frances McDormand as Mildred is simply superb – washed out, grief-ridden, make-up free face, straggly lost interest hair, overalls and big boots, scraggy head-band, all boundaries and conventions torn away – the brutal, perhaps unnecessary, vicious tongue-lashing she gives the local priest who comes to offer advice is uncomfortable to watch, while the attack she launches against a couple of teenagers who throw a coke can at her car windscreen makes one flinch.

Woody Harrelson’s role is not as large as one might expect but he is excellent while Sam Rockwell as the luckless, (almost) irredeemable Dixon is Oscar-worthy. Peter Dinklage as the only midget in town (their description, not mine), has a small but perfectly-formed role (no pun intended). The resemblance to Manchester by the Sea is further enhanced by the presence of Lucas Hedges in a small but crucial role as Mildred’s teenage son – a still, small voice of calm amongst the maelstrom of emotions of the others.

Writer and Director Michael McDonagh also made ‘In Bruges’, the 2008 film about a couple of existentialist outcast gangsters holed up in the title town. This film also has much the same feel as the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, not just due to the presence of McDormand, but also the music by Carter Burwell, making full use of Townes Van Zandt’s mournful voice.

Will there be a better film all year? It’s too early to make predictions but this will certainly run them close and (thank God) it’s got nothing to do with Brexit.

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