Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri    
Written and directed
by Martin MacDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes. Length: 115 minutes

In Ebbing, Missouri, everyone knows Mildred Hayes as the mother of Angela, a teenage girl who was raped, killed and then burned on a country road. After almost a year there’s still no trace of her murderer. To capture public attention and to put the police against the wall, she rents three billboards — Raped While Dying”; “And Still No Arrests?”; “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” — which scream her pain about the unpunished murder. This provocative move leads to a clash with Willoughby, a good man who, as very few people know, is suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer…

***

After In Bruges and 7 Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh strikes gold with a powerful and inspired film, a black comedy reminiscent of the best of the Coen brothers. The protagonist is an amazing Frances McDormand (who is married to Joel Coen).

This is a minor masterpiece, an emotionally dry movie which is still so touching and respectful of pain that it can elicit more than a few laughs and even some tears. The award-winning screenplay (already bagging a Golden Globe and the Osella award at Venice) is the strong suit of the movie, with dialogue which is both biting and deep (and quite profane).

At the core of the story is the pain of a mother who lost her daughter in a brutal way. She is torn between rage at her murder and guilt over their rocky relationship.

But her story and the inflammatory gesture that sparks the whole affair are just a device to open a Pandora’s box of suffering and drowned resentment amongst the people of the town of Ebbing, an imaginary mid-West town where racism and prejudice are not far below the surface.

The beauty of the movie lies in its sublimely written characters, so nuanced and diverse from each other that they almost function as delegates for all of humanity, and yet so similar in the way they morbidly cling to their pain. They are so complex and multifaceted that is actually impossible not to empathize with each of them.

Anger and respect, love and hate, pain and serenity masterfully come together, making us feel that despite the absurdity of the situation and the surreal behaviour of some of its larger-than-life characters, great truths are portrayed on the screen. Because that’s how people are: complicated, wounded, angry, capable of a mysterious and unexpected nobility, but also of unspeakable violence. All of them, however, are searching for justice and love, despite the hell of those with hate in their heart (masterfully shown in the flames of the film’s many fires.).

People are changeable, and even when they make wrong choices they can always rethink them, to “decide along the way”, as Mildred says in the movie’s final line. Pain generates violence, but also great love.

Problematic elements: foul language and some tense scenes

Gabriele Cheli writes from Italy.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet