Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/18/17 02:37:38
While watching “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the latest film from audacious British writer-director Martin McDonagh, whose previous efforts were “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths,” I experienced a sensation that I rarely experience at the movies these days—I genuinely had no idea what was going to happen next. Most movies made today, even the good ones, tend to fall into comfortable patterns and once a viewer detects them, they can pretty much figure out, at least in the broad strokes, everything that is about to happen. With this film, however, even though I knew the basics of its plot, I spent most of the running time never knowing where it was headed—and on the rare instances when I was willing to hazard a guess, I was usually wrong—and that sensation only added to what was already a tremendous work. This is a darkly funny, deeply moving and always audacious high wire act of a film that, much like its unforgettable heroine, obeys none of the rules or niceties and is all the more memorable and exciting because of it.That heroine is Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) and when we first see her, she is sitting in a lot outside her small Missouri town staring at three empty billboards that have not been used in a long time. It is soon revealed that nine months earlier, her daughter Angela was raped and murdered, a crime for which no one has been apprehended and whose investigation appears to have hit a dead end. Some people might write this off as a simple but unfortunate fact of life and do their best to put it behind them and move on. Mildred, on the other hand, is not one of those people and she is determined to force the local police to focus on the case that she feels they have abandoned. Her simple but elegant idea is to pool together what little money she has in order to rent out the three billboards to post a message that reads:
RAPED WHILE DYING
AND STILL NO ARRESTS
HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY
The billboards do have an immediate effect on the town, though not necessarily in the way that Mildred had expected. A number of locals are outraged and hotheaded mana’s boy cop Jason Dickson (Sam Rockwell), who has already caused the department a number of headaches due to rumors of beating and torturing African-American suspects while in custody, is ready to do anything in his power (and beyond) to take them down. As for Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), his reaction is a little more nuanced. He doesn’t think that the billboards are especially fair and explains to Mildred that some crimes just lead to natural dead ends and if they are resolved at all, it is only by dumb luck—someone bragging in a bar or something equally stupid. At the same time, he cannot entirely disagree with Mildred’s righteous anger and even perversely admires her for her actions—even when he is forced to take her into custody when she responds to a vindictive pro-cop dentist attempting to drill a hole in her tooth by using the same drill on his hand, he finds it hard to keep a straight face. His biggest problem with Mildred’s campaign is of a personal nature—he is suffering from terminal cancer and is not thrilled at the idea of spending his last few months with the pain of his disease compounded by the agony he already feels over not having solved Angela’s murder in the first place.
At this point, I am not going to say another word about what happens next in order to preserve the surprises that are in store as Mildred’s campaign attracts outside attention even as it deeply divides the town. Instead, I will merely mention a few of the other characters who turn up along the way. There is Mildred’s son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who is torn by his mother’s actions—he loves her, of course, but at the same time, the signs have not only made him a pariah at school but serve as a constant reminder of the especially horrible manner in which his own sister died. Charlie (John Hawkes) is Mildred’s abusive ex-husband whose presence is perhaps the one thing that can make her even momentarily flinch, though she is perfectly comfortable with verbally tearing him to shreds, especially when it comes to the 19-year-old bimbo (Samara Weaving) that he is currently dating. Anne (Abbie Cornish) is Willoughby’s loving wife who is one of many who think that the billboards unfairly single him out. Finally, there is James (Peter Dinklage), a local guy who plainly has a thing for Mildred because he recognizes her as a kindred spirit—both are outsiders in the type of town where such people are often.
What is so great about these characters, not to mention the film surrounding them, is that we never get a sense that they are indeed characters being moved from plot point to plot point tho keep the narrative humming along. They feel like real people with real lives that exist outside of what we see on the screen and they are all people with recognizable traits that do not easily fit into one category or another. Mildred is fierce and determined, of course, but she can be so hard and abrasive at times, even to those she cares about, that it is sometimes hard to warm up to here. On the other hand, Dixon is clearly a brute who cheerfully abuses the power given to him by the badge but once the day ends, he goes home to the mother her still lives with and soaks up more of her equally poisonous cruelty. It is easy to write him off as a dumb monster but one cannot help but empathize with him in a certain way and when the chips are down, he reveals previously hidden depths or decency and intelligence that allow you to understand why Willoughby would elect to keep him on despite him committing any number of fireable actions over the years.
I have been somewhat mixed in the past in regards to Martin McDonagh’s work—I found “In Bruges” entertaining enough, if a bit rambling in parts, but largely disliked “Seven Psychopaths,” which felt to me like a Tarantino knockoff that was inexplicably a decade late in getting a release. His script for “Three Billboards,” however, is pretty astounding throughout in the way that it juggles any number of tones ranging from bizarre humor to heart-wrenching drama to simple, stark terror—sometimes within the context of the same scene—in such a deft manner that it may take more than one viewing to realize just how great his work here really is. Because of the combination of a small-town crime, weirdo humor and the presence of Frances McDormand, there will no doubt be many comparisons between this film and the works of the Coen Brothers, specifically with “Fargo.” The comparison is apt, I suppose, but not because he is trying to copy anything specific that they have done, His work compares to theirs in the way that he takes familiar narrative tropes and presents them in such a unique manner—especially in regards to dialogue that is as brilliant as can be without ever coming across as overly writerly—that it all feels fresh and new and vital. In the case of this film, he accomplishes that fact so completely that even though this is a completely original screenplay, there are many times when I was convinced that it had to have been based on real events because of the sense of authenticity on display.
Another apt point of comparison between McDonagh and the Coens is in his ability to cast actors who are exactly on his wavelength and able to carry out his idiosyncratic dialogue in a manner that feels absolutely natural. I think we can all agree that Frances McDormand’s greatest performance—indeed, one of the great performances of our time—was her turn as Marge in “Fargo” but her work here as Mildred is its equal. Even when she does things that many people might find to be beyond the pale, she does it in a way that allows viewers to completely understand where she is coming from and why she does what she does—we feel her anger for sure but also her sadness and the guilt that she feels over her daughter’s death. And yet, this is hardly a one-woman show as McDonagh’s screenplay has plenty of juicy supporting parts to go around and they have been filled with actors who know how to do them justice. At first, Sam Rockwell’s performance may seem a little over-the-top and cartoonish but he always manages to keep from going completely off the rails and when he does make a big change in his character, the shift is so deft that he actually manages to bring a glimmer of humanity to the part. Although only in a few scenes, Dinklage scores a number of laughs as a guy who is fascinated by Mildred but not so much that when she, rattled by an unexpected encounter with her ex and his girlfriend, turns her cutting remarks towards him as a reflex, he isn’t ready with a few withering retorts of his own. The best of the supporting performances is the one by Woody Harrelson, who delivers one best turns of his career. He negotiates all the complicated emotional beats of his character and when he goes head to head with Mildred, his cheerful cynicism proves to be an expert match for her nihilistic bravado. If there is any remaining doubt that Harrelson is one of the best actors working today, this film should erase them once and for all.
.I don’t know if I would go so far as to proclaim “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” to be the best film of the year (though it is definitely in the running) but it is definitely the movie of the moment—one that captures all the anger, despair and hurt that many are currently feeling as well as the burning desire to upend the status quo, especially in regards to sexual violence, and start over. It is the kind of film that shakes up and galvanizes audiences in a way that few movies do these days. Darkly funny, emotionally devastating and unexpectedly redemptive, this is one of those rare movies that shakes you up while you are watching it and sticks with you long afterwards
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