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Soundtrack review: Three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Carter Burwell – 2017)

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Soundtrack review: Three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Carter Burwell – 2017)



“Three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a darkly comedic drama from Academy Award® winner Martin McDonagh (IN BRUGES). After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, Mildred Hayes (Academy Award® winner Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, commissioning three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Academy Award® nominee Woody Harrelson), the town’s revered chief of police. When his second-in-command Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated. Carter Burwell wrote the score.

Lately Carter Burwell has stepped away from his dark ironic score sound of the Coen Brothers movies and traded it for nice and quiet orchestral texture; reading the plot of this movie and remembering how much I loved his “In Bruges” score gives me hope that he will return to the niche where he is king. The opening cue “Mildred goes to war” actually brings nostalgia of that unmistakable sound with the mix of ironic Americana and sarcastic darkness that doesn’t announce anything good; it’s all in the strings that Burwell uses, both as instruments and way the music is written and played. I remember a lot of emotional moments from before in “The deer” where the string texture welcomes a sweet and melodic piano motif; there’s also the flute and I think there are very few composers who can make the flute sound hopeless.

I surely missed the sneaky and oily Burwell dark comedy sound; every motif, be it string, piano or something else makes me think of shadows and small people doing really bad stuff. The music doesn’t let any hope in while in the same time making the darkness feel natural and even welcoming. The mandolin motif in “I’ve been arrested” is so classical Burwell that I would recognise the composer in the blink of an eye. There’s the drum roll as well, it’s like running into creepy old friends that I’ve strangely missed. There’s the “In Bruges” vibe as well in “Fruit loops” as that was the most piano heavy score and the melancholy it brought has stuck with me all these years. There’s that contrast between knowing something bad is going on and not being able to look away and actually enjoying it as I do when I listen to the effervescent (by Carter Burwell standards) “Billboards on fire”. The way darker cues dissolve into a warm melodic end always gets to me.

With every cue that goes by I am more and more fascinated and enchanted by this score; oh how I have missed this Carter Burwell, the emotional intensity, the simple, dark and melodic Americana score and the rounded edges of his music like a warm and friendly pair of eyes you meet in the blackest of nights. Both the acoustic guitar and the piano play motifs that are intimate and romantic, elegiac and melancholic and I get flashbacks of my favourite Nick Cave and Warren Ellis scores with cues like “Slippers” and “My dear Anne”. I am listening to the music and I get misty eyed without even noticing, that’s now natural the score plays and the piano and guitar sounds slip inside me and take me over.

Honestly I cannot understand how Carter Burwell can write music like this, so simple and yet so powerful and how a minimal number of instruments can convey so many emotions; I know the music is sad, I know bad things happen, but the tenderness and warmth of the sound just leave me speechless. Once the score is over I cannot believe that it was only 21 minutes long because I’ve lived a lot more while listening to it. Imagine a 21 minute long end titles cue, minimalistic and poignant, imagine a longer and even more emotional version of Burwell’s “Safe harbour” from “The finest hours” (incidentally my favourite cue of 2016). I rarely find myself with such a void inside once a score is over but Carter Burwell managed to leave a strong mark with “Three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”, a score that will be a contender for score of the year 2017.

Cue rating: 100 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 21 / 21

Album excellence: 100%

Mildred Goes to War
The Deer
A Cough of Blood, A Dark Drive
I’ve Been Arrested
Fruit Loops
Billboards On Fire
My Dear Anne
Billboards Are Back
Collecting Samples
Sorry Welby
Can’t Give Up Hope

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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