As a film, Three Billboards outside of Ebbing Missouri didn’t surprise me. But being a fan of writer director Martin McDonagh and his previous work, my lack of surprise at his deft handling of dark themes and complicated fleshed out characters, well, isn't very surprising. In fact, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri is the rare film where my expectations in terms of the quality of the experience were exactly what I hoped for and the usual disappointment with such familiarity was nowhere to be found.
Those not familiar with McDonagh should look no further than 2012s Seven Psychopaths— which shared many of the same actors—or 2008s darkly funny In Bruges. All three of which tell original stories involving average people dealing with fucked up situations, parts of which they had no direct control over. His characters feel believable as does the violence that often befalls their various situations.
When I noted my lack of surprise off the top, it wasn’t to say that Billboards wasn’t surprising in the events depicted on screen, because as with his other films, there are certain twists and turns that I didn’t see coming. The through line and familiarity for each film comes in the themes McDonagh explores: the search for meaning in the face of death, the consequences for violent actions and our human need to seek resolution when there’s none to be found. But like in the films before it, Billboards explores these in unique way that connects to the story and characters McDonagh has created.
Talking about the story and characters is where my biggest problem with his films come up, specifically the hurdle not wanting to divulge any information. Billboards is the type of experience I wouldn’t want any preparation for, and while the trailer was short enough to provide just a glimpse at McDonagh’s new creation, I almost wish that I didn’t experience that either. But of course the characters are great and with Frances McDormand as the lead could we have expected anything else?
In my mind as one of the most underrated actresses working today, McDormand gives an emotionally stinging and brutally funny performance that’s one of my favourites of the past few years. Joined by McDonagh favourites Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, Billboards spends time with each character adding a different and nuanced layer to the overall narrative. Then of course, there’s the dialogue. Aaron Sorkin always gets the nod when it comes to Hollywood screenwriters with a penchant for great dialogue and while I won’t disagree, the conversations his characters have never felt real. The dialogue might be engaging but it’s certainly never believable. But with Martin McDonagh and coincidentally his older brother John (who wrote both The Guard and Calvary) have an understanding for believable dialogue, even if the situations that the conversations stem from are absurd.
In terms of the narrative, Billboards is more tame than it’s predecessors, but even then that’s not really saying anything because the story here is bombastic, zany and over the top. Somehow McDonagh makes it work, having me accept such chaos as believable fact that such things could happen in a small sleepy town. McDonagh as a writer and director feels very close to what the Coen brothers have always managed to do, throwing ordinary people into extraordinarily violent and strange situations, while maintaining a sense of authenticity that goes unparalleled. The choice of music for Billboards is also fantastic. While there’s no character theme song necessarily, certain genre choices were used for different characters which added a thematic layer to the film that was a nice touch.
Overall I thought Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri was everything I hoping for when it comes to a Martin McDonagh film. Well rounded characters, a story that's both tender and abrasive and a sense of humor that’s a dark as the coffee I was drinking when I sat down in the theatre. Definitely check this one out in theatres with a friend or loved one and if it at all possible remain radio silent in terms of watching trailers or plot heavy reviews.