A film review by Craig J. Koban December 12, 2017

RANK: #1


2017, R, 115 mins.


Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes  /  Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby  /  Sam Rockwell as Officer Jason Dixon  /  Abbie Cornish as Anne  /  Caleb Landry Jones as Red  /  Kathryn Newton as Angela  /  Clarke Peters as Abercrombie

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh's intoxicating and masterfully constructed THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is one of the better films that I've seen as of late that's able to seesaw rather delicately and confidently between emotionally ravaging drama and ultra black comedy.  

It's a film punctuated by multiple flawed and tortured characters - in one form or another - that coalesce together and are forced head on to deal with their own respective baggage.  No character is clean.  No one among them can be easily defined as either black and white protagonists or antagonists.  There's shared misery among them all.  If anything, these doomed personas exist in an unsavory vacuum where life in general seems to have given them a raw deal, which leaves most of them feeling morally defeated.  More importantly, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is about grief and how that can be channeled into obsessive revenge filled anger.   

One of these poor lost souls is Mildred Hayes (played in a career high performance by a bitterly empowered Frances McDormand) as a recently divorced mother that lives, yes, in Ebbing, Missouri that tragically lost her daughter Angela over a year ago when she was brutally murdered and raped.  Because a preponderance of proper DNA evidence was never accumulated to mount a proper prosecution of any potential culprits, Angela's murder still remains a frustrating mystery...and it has left Mildred resentful and angry.  When very few tangible leads turn up, Mildred feels that she must go on the offensive to generate renewed interest in her daughter's case.  Taking matters into her own hands, she rents out not one, not two, but three billboards on one of the town's more desolate roads and places three distinct attention grabbing messages on each: 

"Raped While Dying. 

And Still No Arrests. 

How Come, Chief Willoughby?"  



Predictably, the billboards have an immediate effect on the local police department they were targeting, and in particular its police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who feels in his heart of hearts that he and his force have done everything possible to track down who was responsible for Angela's death.  Mildred will have none of it, though, as she remains steadfast in pointing her finger wag of shame rather specifically - and very publicly - at the police, whom she believes represents a toxic blend of laziness, ineptitude, and indifference.  Unfortunately for Mildred, Willoughby is a very prominent and popular figurehead in town, even though one of his officers, Dixon (a never been better Sam Rockwell), is a morally corrupt and aggressively racist cop.  Because Willoughby is respected as a decent and upstanding family man, the town begins to resent Mildred and her cause.  Hell, even the local priest turns up at Mildred's home to politely inform her that the town is turning on her despite still feeling sorry for what happened to her daughter.  Complicating matters for her is dealing with the fallout of her highly abusive marriage to Charlie (a stalwart John Hawkes) and neglecting her time with her 18-year-old son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who too seems to think that his mother has gone perhaps too far in her vendetta to seek the truth. 

Mildred is one of the most intrinsically compelling and conflicted characters to emerge in quite some time.  She's not an ordinary on-screen mother of kindness and/or compassion.  She's a tightly wound up cauldron of unfiltered rage that's not afraid - for example - to verbally berate and/or physically assault anyone that's challenging her cause and dragging her daughter's name through the mud.  She's a stern faced and steely eyed f-bomb uttering force of nature in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI that's absolutely tired of sitting idly by and leaving the past behind her.  She simply refuses to accept the current state of affairs in her daughter's case and forcefully mounts an offensive against anyone that stands in her way.  One of the film's most memorable moments involving her is that aforementioned altercation with the town priest, during which time she unleashes a fire and brimstone indictment of the Catholic Church as a whole in a scathing monologue that's as venomous as they come. 

Watching moments like this in the film I was instantly reminded of what a toweringly imposing actress Frances McDormand is and how she owns utterly every waking second she occupies during the course of this narrative.  McDormand fearlessly and audaciously submerges herself in Mildred's fractured psyche to reveal a woman on the verge of self implosion that nevertheless takes virtually no prisoners in her ongoing battle to see that justice prevails in her daughter's case.  The 60-year-old McDormand is not a physically imposing actress, but the raw caged intensity that she brings to key moments in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is absolutely chilling to behold.  There is rarely a moment in the film when you don't intuitively feel Mildred's pain, remorse, and hostilely aggressive drive to see that a past wrong is righted.  This might be her finest and most calculated performance that's she's given on screen since FARGO; she's a ferociously headstrong presence here. 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is not just ostensibly about Mildred, though, seeing as it democratically develops its side characters beyond cookie cutter stereotypes.   Harrelson acclimates himself exceedingly well in a role that could have been written on lazy autopilot as the backwards minded and stubborn small town sheriff, but instead Willoughby is shown as a profane, but kind and congenial officer of the law that genuinely seems like a decent guy that has tried to do what he can to ensure that Mildred's case is seen through.  Complimenting Harrelson's fine and nuanced turn is Rockwell, who perhaps has the thorniest performance challenge in the film playing a white trash, hillbilly cop that demonstrates ample amoral and oftentimes hellishly violent proclivities that, in a lesser film, would make him an easy villain of spite.  The subtle genius of Rockwell's tricky turn here is that he gives Dixon substantially more subjugated layers that only come to the forefront the longer the film progresses.  Dixon is cowardly and reprehensibly xenophobic, which certainly inspires hatred of him, but his character has a larger overall arc in the latter stages of the film that throw unexpected curveballs at audiences that make us radically revaluate his character.  Rockwell has made a career of being an underrated character actor, and that proudly continues here with his Oscar caliber work. 

High praise as well, obviously enough, needs to be given to McDonagh for painstakingly crafting a script that never takes the road most traveled approach for this type of material.  One of the singular pleasures of watching THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI unfold is in how well it keeps viewers off balance and guessing.  So many prosaic and paint-by-numbers scripts these days wallow in expositional particulars and predictably migrate from points A to B and finally to C.  McDonagh is too supremely talented as a writer to allow for such indiscretions and instead wraps us up within the central mystery of Angela's murder without directly being a movie about solving a murder.  This isn't an obligatory whodunnit or a standard order cops and criminals thriller, but rather sobering character drama about how the past rears its ugly head and drives people past their breaking point, and often in unhealthy ways.  McDonagh is less concerned about the hows and whys of his story's central murder and is more enamored with the inherent darkness that resides in people when dealing with life altering crisis.  The manner that he also layers his film with some genuinely surprising plot twists and detours without telegraphing them is to his esteemed credit; it makes THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI all the more potent as a searing study of people making ethically questionable choices. 

McDonagh's superlative gifts as a bravura storyteller should surprise no one.  The Irish playwright turned filmmaker previously made 2008's brilliant hitman-themed IN BRUGES (a film that I thought deserved worthy comparisons to PULP FICTION) and then followed that up with the 2012's criminally underrated SEVER PSYCHOPATHS, both of which I thought were among the very best of their respective years.  If there was a common thread that ties that early work with THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI then it would be how all walk that fine line between side-splitting comedy and wrath filled drama without inspiring a sensation of tonal whiplash in viewers.  Beyond fluidly homogenizing his films' discordant tones, McDonagh has an unimpeachable knack for dialogue exchanges that have a razor sharp edge and bite that, like Tarantino before him, give even his most contemptible of characters an eclectic and inviting charm.  

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is yet another unqualified creative triumph for McDonagh; it's a small scaled and grounded film that finds a manner of challenging viewers with heavy hitting and gripping themes that don't build to easy to digest dramatic payoffs.  It ends on a note of painful ambiguity that, perhaps when all is said and done, anger is indeed a corruptible force that can pollute any soul beyond the normal point of recovery, leaving the healing process a long and bitter one for all.  As a thoroughly transfixing portrait of damaged people and their desperate attempts to mend for the better, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI emerges as one of 2017's best films. 

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