The third feature-length directorial effort from Oscar-winning Irish playwright/filmmaker Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a delicate balancing act of intense pathos and broadly dark comedy in the same vein as McDonagh’s hit man dramedy In Bruges and his Hollywood crime/comedy Seven Psychopaths before it. McDonagh’s previous movies are cult favorites and even received some awards season attention in the case of In Bruges, so part of the reason that he doesn’t scale quite the same creative heights here is because McDonagh had already set a pretty high bar for himself. Nevertheless, the filmmaker’s third feature is still one of the kind and among 2017’s more unique offerings. Three Billboards wobbles during its tightrope walk between comedy and drama, but is kept on-course by careful direction and two fiery performances.
Three Billboards is set in motion when Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced mother whose daughter was murdered and raped seven months earlier, decides to take an unconventional approach to calling out the police in her town of Ebbing, Missouri, for their failure to find her daughter’s killer. Mildred in turn rents three billboards located on a scarcely-traveled road on the outskirts of Ebbing, each of which includes part of a larger statement demanding to know why local Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his squad have yet to find a suspect in the case, much less catch the actual murder. Suffice it to say, Midred’s actions are quick to draw attention (both the good and bad kind) to themselves.
In particular, Mildred’s billboards draw the attention of police officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a cop who is already infamous for his erratic and sometimes even violent behavior. Mildred, however, refuses to be intimidated by either Jason or anyone else in town for that matter, even as the people close to her – such as her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) – find themselves in the crosshairs of her battle with the Ebbing authorities. Question is, just how far is Mildred willing to go in order to get justice for her daughter… and can either she or anyone else, for that matter, ever really find it?
McDonagh’s Three Billboards screenplay, like his scripts for his previous films, frequently oscillates between Coen Brothers-esque bleakly offbeat humor and raw drama in the blink of an eye. It’s a very difficult balancing act to keep up without giving audiences emotional whiplash, and because McDonagh sustains it for large chunks of Three Billboards, those moments where he either fumbles or fails stand out all the more for it. Ultimately, the movie hits its targets more often than it doesn’t and even succeeds at throwing some curveballs, when it comes to the trajectory of its plot threads and overarching storyline. Three Billboards itself likewise juggles elements of a political satire (where McDormand and Rockwell represent the extremes of the left/right divide in the U.S. and Harrelson the middle) with a sincere narrative about the ripple effects that a horrific event has on the lives of those around it. The film doesn’t have equal success at being both of those things throughout its runtime, but its character drama in particular manages to have an emotional impact thanks to the efforts of its cast.
McDormand and Rockwell have been generating lots of awards buzz for their respective performances in Three Billboards, and that hype is certainly deserved. Their characters are both very damaged people for very different reasons, what with Mildred being an abuse victim whose righteous anger cloaks the guilt she feels about what happened to her daughter, and Jason being both a hot mess of toxic masculinity and an aging mama’s boy. These roles allow for moments of levity and somber drama alike, which McDormand and Rockwell handle with grace and skill, in the process delivering two very different tour de force performances. Mildred and Jason’s storylines are compelling enough on their own to carry the film through its rougher patches, preventing it from fully falling off the tracks along the way.
The Three Billboards supporting cast is solid across the board, yet winds up being underused by the end. Harrelson’s Sheriff Willoughby gets the best-developed plot thread outside of the film’s leads, but his professional and personal struggles aren’t as impactful as intended, in spite of yet another fine performance from Harrelson. In addition to Harrelson and Hedges (Lady Bird), the film’s cast includes Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) and Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out) as some of the quirky residents of Ebbing, along with seasoned character actor John Hawkes as Mildred’s abusive ex-husband and McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths collaborator Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife. While most of these players get a moment to shine in the film, Three Billboards doesn’t service them all equally and has mixed success at elevating them beyond being stereotypes in their scenes. That said, McDonagh deserves credit for not tying up all of these various plot threads in a tidy fashion. Like in real life, not every conflict here gets a clean resolution.
Three Billboards‘ version of Ebbing gets most of its personality from its off-kilter residents, but McDonagh does succeed in creating a proper sense of time and place with the movie’s portrayal of its Southern small-town setting (which, in reality, was largely filmed in North Carolina). The scenery doesn’t lend itself to quite the picturesque visuals of In Bruges, but McDonagh and cinematographer Ben Davis (who also collaborated on Seven Psychopaths) manage to capture some striking imagery here while still keeping the film intimate in its scope and focus. Much like he did on In Bruges, composer Carter Burwell further enhances the mood of Three Billboards with his beautiful score, blending rural tunes with more classical and poetic leitmotifs.
All things considered, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri further establishes McDonagh as being a storyteller with a sensibility that (while reminiscent of other filmmakers) is very much all his own, even if it doesn’t represent his best work to date. McDormand and Rockwell are deserving of the Oscar talk that their performances here have been generating and Three Billboards is worth checking out for their work alone, all this awards season buzz aside. The film isn’t necessarily one that begs to be seen on a big screen, but more casual moviegoers in the mood for a change of pace from this holiday season’s mainstream releases, and/or the more typical Oscar bait offerings, might find what they’re looking for by taking a trip with McDonagh down South.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is now playing in a semi-wide U.S. theatrical release. It is 115 minutes long and is Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.
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