What is a thriller? It’s probably one of cinema’s most fluid genres working as a buffer zone between drama and horror. Over the years various films have weighted the neutral zone so that it leans further toward the horror side: Psycho, Silence of the Lambs etc, but with Martin McDonagh’s latest film the pendulum has swung back over to the raw and dramatic.
Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri tells the story of bereaved mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) who hires three unused billboards outside of town to draw attention to her daughter’s murder and ask the cops why there has been no progress made in catching her killer several months later. Naturally her plan sends sparks flying through town, but as everyone sides with the cops it becomes apparent that Mildred must take matters into her own hands.
The wonder of this movie comes from its beginning as a conventional thriller –a killer, a quest to find them, and a town against one woman- but quickly changing into something else entirely. By the end you’re left completely stunned by what you’ve just seen. It’s a narrative game of cat and mouse, however it’s impossible to decide who is the cat and who is the vermin, as McDonagh takes the conventional tropes of the thriller and redirects them in a way that takes the movie completely off the map.
Alongside this exciting story we have these wonderfully gritty characters. A second wonder of this movie is that its characters are themselves recognisable clichés of the genre –making us hate or love them as such- but they also get morphed so that the people you began the film hating end up busting their way into your heart like a bad rom-com. The cast is absolutely wonderful. Frances McDormand is tough on the outside but sweet in the middle, a clever woman with a redneck attitude. David Stratton has said that this is “her best performance since Fargo” and I can wholeheartedly agree. Woody Harrelson as Police Chief Willoughby -the named target in Mildred’s billboards- is a genuine authority figure conflicted with what’s morally right and what’s within his professional power. The internal conflict is consistently stamped across his face and a delicious sense of tragedy envelopes him as his own personal story develops. And then we have Sam Rockwell who definitely deserves the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he’s up for. While the central characters of Mildred, Willoughby and Officer Dixon (Rockwell) all go through transformation his is the most beautiful to watch, beginning the film as a bumbling but aggressive cop and settling into something ironically gorgeous by the film’s end.
Whilst it’s not a movie that you should enter into lightly, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the film that you should start your Oscars catch-up with.