When a film comes in with a lot of Oscar hype before really anyone beyond a handful of festivals has even seen it, I try to take a step back – for every “Silver Linings Playbook,” there’s five like “Collateral Beauty.”
So, when Martin McDonagh’s latest film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” was announced for the 2017 Twin Cities Film Fest, I remained a little skeptical.
Then I saw it and realized that this is one of those rare cases where the finished product not only meets the hype, but completely surpasses it.
Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” (Photo by Merrick Morton, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.)
Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a woman who has seen better days. Her daughter was raped and murdered in spectacularly horrific fashion, which is only worsened by the fact that the local sheriff, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), and his officers, including the incredibly awful Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), have made virtually zero progress in solving the case.
Making things worse is the fact that her abusive ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), has not only taken up with 19-year-old Penelope (Samara Weaving), but he blames her actions for their daughter’s death. In addition, her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) hasn’t been able to move on from it and feels forgotten in Mildred’s search for justice.
In an attempt to reignite the investigation and bring renewed interest to the case, Mildred rents three billboards on the outskirts of town that detail the case and call out Willoughby and his officers for failing to make progress.
Her efforts work and the case once again moves to the front of people’s minds, but not everybody thinks Mildred’s methods are the best course of action … and they’re not afraid to show or tell her about it every chance they get.
Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” (Photo by Merrick Morton. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved)
Given that synopsis, you might be surprised to know that this is most assuredly a comedy. Make no mistake, it’s certain a dark, dark, dark comedy, but it’s comedy nonetheless. You have these unfathomably awful circumstances that these character live with, which are decidedly unfunny, but then you’ve also got this biting humor that pulls no punches. If you’re easily offended, you’ll either want to turn off that portion of your brain or skip this one because it is unapologetically politically incorrect in many, many instances.
But that’s what I love about it. You have some sincerely awful people mixed in with others that have simply made some poor choices and they add to this narrative that just sucks you in. You want answers. You want resolution. You want justice to play out in front of you. To me, when depressing subject matter can make you care (and laugh uncomfortably), you have storytelling at its absolute finest.
In addition to a completely enveloping story, the two things that stand out here are the individual performances of McDormand and Rockwell.
Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” (Photo by Merrick Morton. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved)
Mildred is – for very obvious reasons – a damaged woman. But don’t mistake that damage for weakness. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. She’s not (overly) vindictive or malicious, she simply wants justice for her daughter and she’s willing to risk anything and everything to get it. Her flaws come largely from a place of anger and guilt, but beneath that she remains human and vulnerable. McDormand does an excellent job of portraying that anger and that determination without making Mildred unsympathetic. A fine balancing act to bring a flawed, but heroic character to life.
Speaking of flawed, let’s talk a bit about Dixon. He’s racist, he’s sexist, he’s an alcoholic mama’s boy, but beyond all of the hateful bluster, you get the idea that he really does want to be good. He wants to be a man he’s proud to look at in the mirror, he wants to be the man that Willoughby thinks he can become. For better or worse, Rockwell often carries the air of a sleazebag, which is needed for Dixon
You throw in some fantastic supporting performances from Harrelson, Hedges (seriously phenomenal 12 months with this, “Lady Bird,” and “Manchester by the Sea”), Peter Dinklage as would-be suitor James, Amanda Warren as Mildred’s co-worker Denise, and the hilariously tragic coupling of Hawkes and Weaving, and you’ve got possibly the best cast of the year.
When it's all added up, you might actually just have the best movie of the year.
“Three Billboards” will almost certainly be on the short list of many of the major awards, and (for a change) it will be 100% deserving.
★★★★1/2 of ★★★★★