Film soundtrack review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018)

An intimate score with dark connotations

Having already garnered four awards at this year’s Golden Globes, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, with its emotional and politically charged plot with delightful dashes of dark humour, is shaping up to become one of the most admirable releases of 2018.

As the title rather obviously suggests, the film is set in the remote, fictional town of Ebbing, and follows the tribulations of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose daughter’s unsolved rape case is thrust into the limelight of the community in the form of three scathing billboards, all of which are rented out by our pertinacious protagonist.

Director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) asked longtime collaborator and composer Carter Bulwell to put pen to paper for the film’s score. The resulting soundtrack delivers an atmosphere just as emotionally pervasive as the charming script, and what Bulwell produced was something McDonagh never suspected…

Spaghetti score

Orchestrated in a distinct spaghetti western style, Bulwell dramatically enhances the searing tension throughout, lassoing the audience’s stomachs in the most powerful scenes. Long spells of dialogue give way to poignant underscoring, which adds a strong emotional dimension to the onscreen proceedings.

This genius choice of musical style brilliantly highlights the stand-offs between the local police department and its citizens, and the score’s frequent use of solo instruments draws attention to the internal battles of characters on both sides of right and wrong.

The score predominantly relies on traditional folk harmonies combined with acoustic textures, however when the script slips into darker territories, the musical style plunges into dissonance. For example in ‘Cough of Blood’, the underscoring becomes distinctly atmospheric in texture; low piano notes are met with solo guitar, creating an atonal ambience that mirrors the characters’ often conflicted journeys.

Mildred’s Theme

Image: YouTube

Musically setting the tone for the film, ‘Mildred Goes To War’ sonically encapsulates the rage, isolation and cast-iron determination of the eponymous character.

Permeating through the spaghetti western style not too dissimilar from Ennio Morricone’s signature scores, Mildred’s spirit is captured through a brazen solo guitar melody – a clear musical representation of her lone mission for justice. Accompanying this melody are warlike drum beats and bell knells, like a posse of cowboys dedicated to her unwavering cause.

The theme appears throughout, and in various incarnations; sometimes angry and strident, and in other instances tender, heart-wrenching and poignant.

Musical connotations

Aside from the original orchestral score, the film’s contemporary song choices expose a different perspective of Ebbing and its community.

Lyrics of loss and sadness are operatically juxtaposed onto a calm yet optimistic orchestral tonality in The Last Rose of Summer, the film’s opening song. The simple melody and harmonic progression in this piece pave the way for the contemporary song choices throughout the film, all possessing a traditional Americana vibe.

Townes Van Zandt’s Buckskin Stallion Blues explores the theme of loss within a rural American landscape, and appears twice in the film, later featured in the final sequence with a more emotional rendition by Amy Annelle, allowing the sobering lyrics to reverberate through the audience.

Image: YouTube

In a one-take sequence at the most harrowing point of the film, the crooning country refrains in His Master’s Voice by Monsters of Folk perfectly encapsulate the conflicted evil that is consuming the town.

As a genre, Americana plays a big part in the cultural heritage of the United States. Tunes of the homeland, sang in an unmistakable country style and tone, are the perfect sonic accompaniment to the picturesque portrait of southern life. However in Billboards, the contemporary song choices go deeper in their commentary.

Through the underlying stench of racism at the heart of the narrative, combined with the Americana song choices, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri starkly epitomises the racial inequality within midwest America, acting as an irreverent reminder of an issue still at the forefront of American life.

– Alex Weston

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