Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three BillboardsDirector: Martin McDonagh

Length: 115 minutes

Martin McDonagh is an accomplished British-Irish playwright who transitioned to film with 2008’s In Bruges and did so with impressive, post-Tarantino fashion. With his third film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh delivers another bravura outing. For all of its profane language, eccentric characters and unexpected violence, Three Billboards never feels as convoluted as McDonagh’s last film, Seven Psychopaths. The film’s strength lies in its deliciously-offbeat humour and ability to convey deep and dark truths. The results earned McDonagh the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Mildred Haynes (Frances McDormand) is a divorced mother grieving over the rape and murder of her teenage daughter seven months prior. Angry over the police’s inability to find the culprit, she buys three abandoned billboards leading into her hometown and paints a controversial message directed at the town sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Upset by what is seen as an unfair attack on the revered Willougby, several town locals confront Mildred. When Willoughby’s second-in-command officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who has a penchant for violence, gets involved, Mildred’s battle with the authorities inflames.

At its heart, Three Billboards is as much of a comedy as it is a drama. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments and the dialogue is razor-sharp and witty in a way that recalls early Coen Brothers comedies (except with more crude language). Meanwhile, there is an element of anger and sadness that gives the comedy resonance. This is not so much of a “who-dunnit crime drama” as the usual murder fare would suggest. McDonagh is more interested in the ugly things “good people” are capable of when justice isn’t served, and the bonds that are formed and broken as a result. His screenplay works to make these flawed people complex and conflicted individuals. Everyone has an arc that contains elements of courage and redemption.

Despite a standard small-town setting, nothing is standard about McDonaugh’s filmmaking. His direction maintains energy and the action sequences are choreographed with flair. The best example is an intense police beating scene, where the camera follows a character upstairs, downstairs and into the streets in one long, unbroken shot. These little flourishes are designed to enhance the tension and comedy in the moment.

For the role of Mildred, there could not have been a better choice than Frances McDormand, who has played her share of ballsy women in her long career. Whether or not you agree with Mildred’s actions, language or treatment of others, she makes for a multilayered character and McDormand’s performance (drawing inspiration from John Wayne’s style) adds a believable mix of harsh and vulnerability. A host of brilliant character-actors appears throughout the film—Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish and Sandy Martin. The veteran cast is rounded by impressive young performers like Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), Australia’s Samara Weaving (the niece of Hugo) and Caleb Landry Jones (who’s having an impressive 2017 with this, Get Out and The Florida Project)Then there is Sam Rockwell as Officer Dixon.  Dixon is given more layers than expected for a character of his type—the violent, dim-witted, redneck cop—and Rockwell makes Dixon’s arc credible.

Gentle in its pacing and packed with many characters, Three Billboards is as exhausting as it is exhilarating. The film has layers that make it deep and rich beyond the violent confrontations and rough and harsh characters. If Three Billboards is not nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, hopefully, someone in L.A. paints a billboard in response to the Academy’s decision.

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