Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is homely yet violent – a greetings card spattered with gore

Beneath the little flecks of brain and bone, the Hallmark logo is unmistakable.

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Unlike the plays on which Martin McDonagh’s reputation rests, his films (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) evoke a Tarantino-esque flippancy that was already passé before he first called “Action!” He alternates shock effects with cockle-warming ones, but screen violence can seem distasteful when placed alongside homely sentiment as it is in his latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The result suggests a greeting card spattered with gore. Beneath the little flecks of brain and bone, the Hallmark logo is unmistakable.

Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is driving home one evening when he sees posters being pasted onto billboards on the outskirts of his town. It is Easter Sunday and those billboards, rented by Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), represent a resurrection of sorts, a demand for a cold case to be warmed up. Her daughter was raped and murdered seven months earlier, and the message is a rebuke to Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for failing to find the killer.

In exchange for her outspokenness, Mildred suffers instances of intimidation which provide an excuse for casual brutality in return – she attacks a dentist with his own drill, for instance, winning the audience’s laughter. The rest of the humour is pitched at the Bridget Jones level. Mildred will say or do something perfectly outrageous, followed by a cut to the target of her anger looking aghast, while a by-stander stifles a smirk. The implication being: she’s a one.

McDonagh is fond of writing dialogue that deconstructs itself. Willoughby points out that cases are usually solved when a criminal brags to a friend; sure enough, that’s where the first lead comes from. Watching a late-night film on TV, Jason’s mother says, “This is the one where the little girl dies,” to which Jason replies, “Always a plus in a movie.” As self-reflexive gags go, it’s effective only if we believe that mother and son, both portrayed as ignorant hicks, would tolerate even 30 seconds of Don’t Look Now, the film they’re referring to, let alone repeated views. Plausible characterisation comes second to movie in-jokes and literary name-dropping.

Mildred is the nearest thing to a complex creation, righteous without necessarily being likeable, but to redress the balance there is also an uncomplicated bimbo for us to laugh at. Lip service is paid to race, with Jason reprimanded for beating up black suspects, though the African-Americans in the film aren’t much more than functional. Mildred has a black female friend, who is only really there to prove that she isn’t racist – and to be thrown in the cells when Jason needs someone to arrest. (Black characters are every bit as useful to the script as a raped and murdered teenager.)

The film is over-loaded with superficial ironies. An injured man extends kindness to his attacker when they share a hospital room. Mildred gives an old foe a bottle of wine instead of clobbering him with it. In absurdly contrived circumstances, she almost kills the one person who has any proof of her daughter’s killer, then befriends him. The subject of former enemies uniting to correct a common wrong is bound to resonate in a divided America. It is only fitting, though, that Mildred owns a copy of Scruples, when the film’s inquisitions don’t advance far beyond the level of a board game.

The Oscar nominations have yet to be announced but Gary Oldman, who plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, must be able to feel the statuette in his hands already. With jowly prosthetics and blustery broad strokes, his portrayal of the Prime Minister during the early days of the Second World War suits perfectly this meretricious film, which is cluttered with showy effects, needlessly flashy camera angles and the sort of electrical-storm lighting that makes any scene set in the House of Commons resemble a heavy metal concert at the O2.

Anthony McCarten’s screenplay takes a history-for-dummies approach. Returning from a meeting with the King, Churchill complains: “He’s never forgiven me for supporting his brother’s marriage to Wallis Simpson.” It’s almost as if he knows he’s addressing a 21st century audience unfamiliar with pre-war gossip. Minor characters recap Churchill’s past for our benefit and there’s a nervous typist (Lily James) on hand whenever anything (Dunkirk, say) needs explaining. The script has been written with the caps lock on and Joe Wright directs accordingly. Everything is afforded the same overwrought emphasis, whether Churchill is contemplating peace talks with Hitler or searching for a mislaid copy of Cicero, so that it becomes impossible to distinguish between the serious and the trivial.

One fabricated scene, in which Churchill steals onto the Underground and canvasses the opinions of some salt-of-the-earth types, epitomises badness of the most exalted kind. Alas, the rest of the film isn’t quite so commendably awful, merely over-lit, over-scored and not over soon enough. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15)
dir: Martin McDonagh
Darkest Hour (PG)
dir: Joe Wright

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief