Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a drama grounded in heartbreak

A mother and a cop (Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson, both above) are wracked with guilt in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
A mother and a cop (Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson, both above) are wracked with guilt in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.PHOTO: 20TH CENTURY FOX

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri shines the spotlight on a family who grieves when one of their own is murdered

REVIEW / DRAMA

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (NC16)

117 minutes/Opens today

4.5 stars

The story: Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), enraged that the rape-murder of her daughter has gone unsolved after several months, pays for billboards that announce the incompetency of her small town's police force. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is annoyed, but does nothing. His deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), decides to take action.

British-Irish screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh likes the realm where religion, murder, stupidity and silly jokes come out to play. Two hired killers hide out in Belgium in In Bruges (2008), but their pasts come to find them; and Seven Psychopaths (2012) has a screenwriter who becomes a target of mobsters after a beloved shih tzu is kidnapped.

His new movie is his most grounded and irony-free yet, featuring a family who suffers real heartbreak when one of their own is murdered.

At the recent Golden Globes, it won awards for Best Motion Picture (Drama) and two of its actors - McDormand and Rockwell - picked up awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor respectively.

It is easy to see why. McDonagh is not a visually dazzling director. His background in theatre moves him to invest energy in longish scenes, animated by dialogue, giving actors plenty of room to stretch. Rockwell's Dixon is the McDonagh favourite: the idiot, who moves from delusion to clarity as the story progresses.

The film, however, belongs to McDormand as the wrathful mother, capable of conveying more menace with her steely gaze and set jawline than a dozen thugs waving weapons.

She, like her antagonist, the chief cop played by Harrelson, is wracked with guilt. Ebbing, Missouri, is too small a town to hold emotions as outsized as hers.

Mildred pays a price, but not before she extracts her own pound of flesh from the good townspeople of that otherwise sleepy burg.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2018, with the headline 'Drama grounded in heartbreak'. Print Edition | Subscribe