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SIGNS of our Times

Bungled investigation and questions of justice secondary to mother’s pain in film teeming with subtlety and unexpected humor

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In many ways, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri defies description, and that’s a good thing. Part dark comedy, part drama, it challenges expectations and convention and is richly better because of it. It’s Oscar season, and if you’re looking for a title likely to be on people’s lips over the next few months, look no further.

Frances McDormand stars as Mildred, a bitter woman with little hope for improvement. She has a right to be angry: Her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) used to beat her and now has a 19-year-old girlfriend (Samara Weaving). More important, Mildred’s daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was burned, raped and murdered seven months ago and the assailant is still free. Frustrated, and no longer capable of holding in her searing emotional pain, Mildred has an idea: Utilize the three unused, dilapidated billboards in her town to send a stern message to Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who’s made little progress on the murder investigation. 

Surprisingly, writer/director Martin McDonagh’s movie is about a lot more than a murder investigation and incompetent police. In fact, Willoughby isn’t incompetent at all. One of the real pleasures of this film is how the story unfolds in wildly unexpected ways, each scene brimming with sharp writing and terrific performances. 

For example, there’s a scene in which Mildred comes home to find her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) sitting with Father Montgomery (Nick Searcy). The priest is there to ask her to take the billboards down because by this point, the town has rallied against her (I told you the movie defies convention!). He gives her a nice, well-reasoned speech, saying sympathetic things about plot points that are not essential to reveal here. Mildred retorts with a stern ferocity that only an actress the caliber of McDormand could muster. Mildred doesn’t yell, but she does use the “Bloods” and “Crips” from L.A. gang life as part of her rationale. By the end, even if you don’t agree with her, you wouldn’t dare disagree with her. Another Oscar nomination is likely in McDormand’s near future—it would be her fifth nomination (she won for Fargo in 1996).

The supporting cast is excellent as well, including Harrelson, Hawkes, Peter Dinklage as Mildred’s sort of love interest and Sam Rockwell as a racist momma’s boy cop. They all perfectly understand the pitch and tone of McDonagh’s script, and are proficient at both the humorous and dramatic moments. It is unlikely you will see a finer ensemble this year, and Rockwell in particular stands out because his character has a larger arc than the others.

More than anything, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has personality. McDonagh’s direction is notably accomplished for a man making only his third feature film: The pacing is steady and sure, the story twists are legit surprises, and the dark humor is laugh-out-loud funny without being morbid. This is one of the best movies of the year.

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