THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
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:
And Still No
How Come, Chief
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.
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
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
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.