Home > Reviews > THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI – Carter Burwell

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI – Carter Burwell

November 24, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There’s a line in writer/director Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, spoken by a fairly minor character, which says “anger begets anger,” and this is the basic crux of what the story is about: how a single event can release years of pent up anger and hate in an entire community, and how that community then deals with the aftermath. The brilliant Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a woman from the eponymous small town in Missouri, whose teenage daughter Angela was raped and murdered seven months previously. Frustrated by the police’s failure to track down her daughter’s killer, Mildred rents three disused billboards outside town and posts three enormous posters which read: RAPED WHILE DYING / AND STILL NO ARRESTS / HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY. This single act is the catalyst for a series of events that irrevocably changes the lives of dozens in the town.

McDonough, whose previous films include In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, finds gallows humor and absurdity in what would otherwise be desperately dreadful circumstances, resulting in a film which touches on many of the issues impacting rural small towns in contemporary America, but which at it’s heart is about grief, anger, and hate, and how those three emotions inevitably intertwine. McDormand is stunning as the acerbic Mildred, whose constant profanity and hard exterior masks her unimaginable emotional pain. Woody Harrelson is gruff but sensitive as the world-weary Chief Willoughby, and there are several outstanding supporting performances, including Mildred’s equally damaged but emotionally forgotten son (Lucas Hedges), her wife-beating ex-husband (John Hawkes), and a self-loathing used car salesman (Peter Dinklage) whose caring romantic overtures towards Mildred are constantly rebuffed.

However, perhaps the most important role after Mildred is that of Sam Rockwell’s Jason Dixon, a redneck deputy with racist tendencies and a hair-trigger temper. What’s so brilliant about Rockwell’s performance is that although Dixon would be an easy character to loathe – he’s stupid and aggressive in equal measure – he also has a tragic quality to him: under different circumstances, with a different upbringing, he could and should be a better man. McDonough offers up these flawed characters and allows you to laugh at, be angry with, and grieve for all of them in equal measure, which is no easy task to achieve, and will likely lead to a slew of Oscar nominations for many of the people involved.

The score for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is by McDonough’s composer of choice, Carter Burwell, who also scored In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths for the director. Despite the rural Americana setting, and dramatic depth of the story, which you would expect to be musically inspirational on their own, Burwell apparently had a great deal of trouble finding the right approach to the score, and was eventually inspired by something unusually mundane – the film’s costume design. He recalls:

“I noticed that Mildred changed her outfit when she was on the warpath, and that other characters also changed their appearance as they shifted between the roles they played in this small town. I came to feel that the violence and vengeance which are ostensible subjects of the film, are simply dressing they put on. Because there are so many fully-drawn characters in the story, I considered an approach used by Ennio Morricone in his spaghetti Western scores (which I love) – giving each character a distinctive musical signature that stays with them even as their alliances shift. But ultimately this seemed too arch, and some major characters, like Sam Rockwell’s, simply don’t have any scored scenes until late in the film. I decided to just concentrate on Mildred – to see the film from her perspective and play the game as she sees it. When she’s at war, the score plays a stomp-and-drum march. When she’s reflecting on her loss, it’s a soulful guitar ballad. There is also a theme for Death, which is never far away. As the story and the relationships develop, these stark colors are set aside and the themes intertwine more subtly, until, by the last couple of reels they’re barely recognizable.”

As such, the theme for Mildred is indeed the film’s driving force, keeping her character firmly at the center of the score’s narrative thrust. The two versions of the theme that Burwell describes – the warpath variation and the loss variation – play consistently throughout the score, mirroring Mildred’s emotional state. The warpath variation appears in the opening cue, “Mildred Goes to War,” and is a wonderfully evocative combination of instruments including guitars, banjos, tubular bells, and percussion that incorporates foot stomps and hand claps. It’s forceful and determined, takes no prisoners and doesn’t give a shit, and for me is one of the best and most memorable things Burwell has written in some time. Further appearances of the warpath variation feature in “I’ve Been Arrested,” and especially “Billboards on Fire,” which has an added intensity through the almost subliminal string figures churning in the background.

The loss variation appears in cues like “The Deer,” “Fruit Loops,” “Slippers,” and “Countermove,” all of which feature beautifully understated textures for guitar, solo piano, plucked bass, and occasional lilting woodwinds. Burwell is a composer who doesn’t ever really go for broke in terms of pushing emotional buttons, and strives to remain on the right side of sentimentality; I have criticized him in the past for not pushing those buttons enough for my taste, but on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri his instincts are right. Mildred’s darkest moments, when she allows herself to give in to despair, usually occur when she is alone with her thoughts, and so to have anything more than Burwell’s subtly modest guitars and gentle woodwinds accompanying her in those moments would have done a disservice to her stoic outward persona, and potentially trivialized her grief. Perhaps the most poignant performance of the loss variation comes in “My Dear Anne,” which uses especially emotional woodwinds to underscore the devastating mid-point plot development, which turns the whole film on its head.

Burwell’s contribution to the score is just over 20 minutes in length and so the soundtrack album, on Varese Sarabande, also features a handful of songs, all of which appear prominently in the film and are used in an important way which adds a key element to the scene in which they are heard. There are two versions of Townes Van Zandt’s “Buckskin Stallion Blues,” including a new cover version by Amy Annelle, and especially excellent renditions of “Walk Away Renee” by The Four Tops, and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by Joan Baez.

I often talk about Carter Burwell being a composer who has a very personal sound, with those indescribably unique chord progressions and that immediately identifiable instrumental phrasing that he has, and which has followed him throughout his career. Tonally, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri shares commonalities with scores like Storyville from 1992, This Boy’s Life from 1993, The Chamber from 1996, The Hi-Lo Country from 1998, the quieter parts of The Alamo, and maybe True Grit, and anyone who appreciated his work on those scores may find this one also to their liking. However, what I appreciate about it the most is the way Burwell has crafted a perfect musical portrait of the central dichotomy inherent in Mildred: crippling grief overcome with raw aggression, antagonism, and an innate desire for justice at any cost. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, somewhere among the slew of Oscar nominations this film is likely to receive, one was headed Burwell’s way.

Buy the Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Mildred Goes to War (1:22)
  • The Deer (2:06)
  • Buckskin Stallion Blues (written and performed by Townes Van Zandt) (2:59)
  • A Cough of Blood, A Dark Drive (2:37)
  • I’ve Been Arrested (0:38)
  • Fruit Loops (1:29)
  • His Master’s Voice (written by Jim James, Conor Oberst, Matthew Ward, and Mike Mogis, performed by Monsters of Folk) (4:49)
  • Billboards on Fire (2:24)
  • Slippers (1:19)
  • The Last Rose of Summer (written by John Andrew Stevenson and Thomas Moore, performed by Renée Fleming, Jeffrey Tate, and The English Chamber Orchestra) (4:51)
  • My Dear Anne (2:35)
  • Walk Away Renee (written by Michael Brown, Bob Calilli, and Tony Sansone, performed by The Four Tops) (2:44)
  • Billboards Are Back (1:24)
  • Collecting Samples (1:15)
  • Sorry Welby (1:43)
  • The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (written by Robbie Robertson, performed by Joan Baez) (3:23)
  • Countermove (1:56)
  • Can’t Give Up Hope (0:30)
  • Buckskin Stallion Blues (written by Townes Van Zandt, performed by Amy Annelle) (3:21)

Running Time: 43 minutes 25 seconds

Varese Sarabande (2017)

Music composed and conducted by Carter Burwell. Orchestrations by Carter Burwell. Recorded and mixed by Michael Farrow. Edited by John Wathurst. Album produced by Carter Burwell.

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