Directors are often held up by critics and audience alike as the Gods of Film; controlling and pointing and designing and envisioning and corralling their mass creative power to thrust upon the cinema screen. Of course, with many directors or auteurs, the lofty praise is deserved but hey, did they create that vision or story or character arc in a vacuum? No, they had a blueprint on a page first. They had a screenplay written by themselves or a determined writer or writing team sitting in a windowless office smoking a thousand cigarettes while slaving to get words on a page in some semblance of a coherent filmic fashion. It seems obvious to say but a great screenplay is the (skeleton) key for any great film; it’s the bones with which to hang the meat and muscle and later the clothes of any movie. Without powerful bones, a film will not stand strong. It will fall.
Screenwriter (and director) Martin McDonagh has, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri constructed one of, if not the most, formidable screenplays of the year. As a playwright, he won many awards for his works and his film, In Bruges (2008), was a deceptively simple story of two hitmen on the run which, with rich thematic power, became a darkly hilarious existential comedy-drama. His follow-up Seven Psychopaths (2012) was a heady mix of criminals versus writers in a meta-fictional Hollywood-based narrative; which while brilliantly written and performed arguably lacked the punch of In Bruges. Now, with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh has delivered his best film to date; a highly emotional human drama which contains some incredible characterization, dialogue and zinging one-liners which bounce off the page and crackle on the screen.
Eschewing a more traditional structure, the script’s inciting event – the murder of a young girl called Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) – has already occurred and therefore we are thrust immediately into the grief of the main protagonist Mildred Hayes, portrayed with an iron veneer by the remarkable Frances McDormand. Her study of a grieving Mother, who is no longer prepared to sit by and wait for her daughter’s killers to be found, is awe-inspiring. Firing a rocket into the patriarchal-dominated police department ran by Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), she sets in motion a series of unforgettably tragic, violent and blackly comedic scenes. In using the three billboards to question Willoughby’s investigation she utilises physical media as a larger form of the ‘Scarlet Letter’; an old-fashioned “name and shame” device. Because Mildred is refreshingly traditional and old-fashioned and in rural, small-town America the Internet just won’t hack it for her. She is foul-mouthed, direct, in-your-face and fearless.
This is similar in feel to the majestic Manchester-by-the-Sea (2016) in its study of grief and no doubt, like Kenneth Lonergan, McDonagh will be picking up many awards for his complex screenplay. He imbues each of the characters with a flawed, yet rounded humanity. He takes risks by making his main protagonist, despite her loss, kind of unlikable. Yet we are always with Mildred because she is righteous and swimming against the tide of authority and masculine dominance. Plus, she surprises us with her actions and language and violence. Below the tough exterior though there is also a vulnerability which makes us love her too and empathise fully with her loss.
McDonagh and his filmmaking team have also put together a phenomenal ensemble cast including Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Abbie Cornish etc. Sam Rockwell is especially memorable as the immature, inept and thuggish mother’s boy, Jason Dixon. His scenes with both Frances McDormand and his on-screen Mother played with deadpan gusto by Sandy Martin, crack with complex emotion and humour. Collectively, they portray imperfect characters whose situation is exacerbated by poor decisions based on emotion and frustration with life. Ultimately, this is an excellent cinematic experience. It’s funny, shocking and moving; only possible because of the expert script from a great writer.