Riveting "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" Poised To Be An Awards Season Heavy-Hitter

Martin McDonagh, the Irish writer and director behind the outstanding 2008 black comedy “In Bruges,” first came to prominence as a playwright. Keep this in mind during his latest, the equally marvelous “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” It is a film that, in the grand tradition of theater, eschews subtlety and favors narrative coincidence, traits not always associated with great cinema. But some of the greatest accomplishments in film history have arrived by a heavy hand; have shook foundations. It’s a space wherein the deep-rooted characterization and shocking, acerbic humor of “Three Billboards” thrives.

McDonagh’s livewire screenplay and true direction make the pic a must-see; two Oscar-worthy performances from Frances McDormand (“Fargo”) and Sam Rockwell (“Moon”) rocket it into the heavens. McDormand headlines as Mildred Hayes, a grieving single mother on the warpath. It’s been less than a year since her teenage daughter Angela was raped and murdered on the outskirts of Ebbing. The local police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has shown no inclination to meaningfully dig in to the case, leaving Mildred no choice but to incentivize his sorry ass.

She rents three billboards on a desolate stretch of road outside of town. Once finished, they read sequentially:

RAPED WHILE DYING

AND STILL NO ARRESTS

HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

Mildred means fucking business, lest her epic potty mouth and proclivity for physical confrontation not give her away. McDormand is electrifying, not only in Mildred’s righteous anger but in her sensitive side, too. This is first seen in an early cutaway in which she assists a struggling, supine insect, a goodness that’s also reflected in her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). He is cut from the same cloth, a tender soul beneath a callous exterior, willing to resort to anything to get his point across. To wit, threatening his abusive father Charlie (John Hawkes) with a butcher’s knife. Robbie and Charlie are small parts in the movie but still fully realized, two of nearly a dozen supporting players that manage to make an impact in McDormand’s significant wake.

As striking a character as Mildred is, her fury requires big foils. Do Harrelson’s prickly Willoughby, and more essentially, Sam Rockwell’s racist cop Jason Dixon ever provide. Harrelson does near career best work here, imbuing Willoughby with a slippery mix of well-mannered hatefulness and traces of compassion. The screenplay has a compelling plan for him and the actor uses his familiar drawl and twinkling eyes in impressive service of its twists and turns.

Meanwhile Rockwell, having carved out a terrific career playing unusually sly class clowns, is as close to revelation as a known commodity can be. Jason Dixon’s arc might be the most stirring thing McDonagh has to offer here, which is no small praise. Although Dixon’s path is overly reliant on some of the aforementioned narrative coincidence, Rockwell plays his dialogue and physicality perfectly in every scene, keeping us guessing as to where this maniacal stooge will end up. McDonagh loves Rockwell; this is evident enough in returning the actor from his previous film “Seven Psychopaths,” crystal clear in the thematic tightrope walk he gives him. The actor makes it seem like a picnic.

To further divulge any of the story would be reprehensible. Just know that the comedy and drama don’t merely co-exist; they are one and the same, arriving in an endless stream of surprising story beats that concurrently shock and dazzle. For instance, Mildred unloading on a skeptical public figure in her dining room is as discomfiting and hilarious as movies get, McDormand pushing a great movie to greater heights, the scene’s searing uncomfortability a testament to the sterling work happening on all sides of the camera.

All involved have cooked up something at once disturbing and rousing and funny, a surefire awards contender that’s one hundred percent not for the faint-of-heart. If “In Bruges” was Martin McDonagh’s opening statement and “Seven Psychopaths” an aside, “Three Billboards” is his thesis – a startling supposition on our better angels and the demons that needle them. It is a fresh and relevant work that will remain that way for as long as humans remain complicated creatures. “Three Billboards” finds uncommonly high poetry in those complications.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: November 10, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Martin McDonagh
Screenwriter: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Zeljko Ivanek, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Samantha Weaving, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references)