Strong performances anchor the campaign for a story of a mother’s grief.
Director Martin McDonagh steps outside of the world of comic violence he’s well known for to bring us this week’s new release Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This time around Frances McDormand stars in a story that involves a mother’s righteous anger, allegations of police indifference and the lengths that mother will go to in order to solve a problem the authorities won’t.
McDormand plays Mildred, whose daughter was killed months ago but whose murder has remained unsolved. Frustrated by inaction, Mildred decides to call out the police in a very public way, by broadcasting their inability to arrest the killer on a serious of billboards on the edge of town. That, along with her other brash behavior, brings her into conflict with the police force, including Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who don’t take kindly to being called lazy or worse.
We see the backs of the three titular billboards at the very bottom of the first poster, a police cruiser driving past on the rural highway they’re placed along. The rest of the image, though, is of the beautiful big skyline of Missouri at dusk, the dark clouds dominating the sky as the sun sets in the distance. Aside from the cast list and title, the other element on the poster is the name-dropping of a couple of McDonagh’s other well-loved movies.
The theatrical poster featured the same dark, barren landscape photo as the first, but with photos of the three primary cast members included on the side each appearing in a cut out of the state of Missouri.
As the first trailer starts we meet Mildred Hayes as she’s fixing to buy some billboard ads. The reason, we find out, is that she wants to keep the pressure on the local sheriff who has yet to find the person who killed her daughter. Mildred has little patience for anyone who gets in her way which, combined with no discernible social skills, means she cuts a swath through the town’s populace, most of whom have turned against her in some manner. The sheriff isn’t thrilled at someone besmirching his name in this manner. Her actions become increasingly outrageous, though, including an attack on a dentist and setting a building on fire.
It’s all played with a slightly comic tone, helped largely by McDormand’s performance. She’s such a foul-mouthed delight in this trailer that it immediately shot to the top of the list of movies I want to see. While the subject matter is rough – anytime you’re dealing with dead kids it’s not shallow waters we’re in – the take looks darkly funny.
Another short trailer was focused more on the struggle Mildred is going through in the wake of her daughter’s death than on the actions she takes as the result of justice not being served. There’s some of that here, but it’s mostly about the quieter aspects of the story and the torment she still feels.
Online and Social
You can watch the trailer again when the official website loads and you should absolutely do so.
After that end, the site is exactly what you’d expect from Fox Searchlight. The “Cast” section has comments by or about each of the leads, including the three mentioned earlier as well as John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage. Same with “Filmmakers” for McDonagh. “Story” has a brief synopsis and “Videos” has the two trailers.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV commercials like this one recapped the basic points of the plot, showing how Mildred is taking matters into her own hands to express her displeasure at the failure of the police to find her daughter’s killer. They play up the dark comedy of the story and show off the performances, which are two major selling points. Some were more overtly violent than others, but they all made the same overall appeal.
Media and Publicity
The movie was announced as one of those that would screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. It also was slated for the Venice Film Festival and Fantastic Fest.
Around the time of Venice and Telluride McDormand was interviewed about her tendency to take on quirky characters, her love of the character and her propensity for colorful dialogue.
While McDormand was hailed as wonderful as usual, Rockwell’s performance became a constant theme of the buzz that came out of the festival screenings, hailed as a highlight in a career full of notable performances. It was such a hit it won the Audience Award there.
Rockwell talked here about how he got involved, how he viewed the character and more. Another piece shortly after that continued calling out the actor’s performance, pegging it as worthy of awards consideration. McDormand also got the same level of ongoing attention for her turn as the wronged mother.
While the movie hasn’t gotten nearly the level of advertising or publicity as some other releases, it seems more vital as a cultural statement than much of what’s hit theaters recently. With a story that, based on what’s shown on the campaign, deals with a woman breaking the expectations of society while drawing attention to police indifference toward the poor, it’s very much in the “pulled from the headlines” mold. Watch the trailers or read some of the press coverage and you’ll see it’s extremely current in what’s being said and the message it’s presented to the audience.
That’s all very important, but on the other hand this is simply being sold as a darkly comic drama featuring outstanding performances from always reliable and supremely talented actors. Putting McDormand and Rockwell together in a film doesn’t seem fair, though neither was pairing her with William H. Macy 20+ years ago. The cultural message is being sent to some while the simple appeal of the actors and a compelling story is being sent to others.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.