November 9, 2017

GENRE | 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' Burns

"Raped while dying and still no arrests. How come Chief Willoughby?"
Frances McDormand Woody Harrelson Martin McDonagh | Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Listen to my second appearance on the Vertical Viewing Podcast (available on iTunes) for Episode 147 reviewing Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, talking movies, and other things as joined by regular co-hosts Scott WillsonMichael Lynd, and guest Dan Nicholls. (1h22)

Irish-British playwright turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh has made another darkly irreverent take on the complex nature of human emotions. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a very funny but disturbing rumination on grief, tragedy, escalation, and retribution. The In Bruges director tackles hot button issues like police brutality, rape/murder, and small-town vigilante justice with a certain bluntness and wit.

Frances McDormand is a treasure. Only an actress of her stature and versatility could embody such a foul-mouthed, ferocious yet wholly identifiable and sympathetic character in Mildred, a distraught mother who mourns the unresolved rape and murder of her teenage daughter, so effectively. It's a sizzling performance that's defiantly comical, heartbreaking, and evocative all the same.

After seven months of inaction by the inept small-town police force, Mildred takes things into her own hands with three titular billboards (unfairly) calling out the lack of progress in solving the crime in addition to a scorched earth approach to keeping her fight alive. She goes to war with the small (fictional) Missouri town and there are clear consequences as she faces different townspeople with their own complicated motivations.

Sam Rockwell Martin McDonagh | Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

A very soulful Woody Harrelson is stoic and the calm, reasonable adult in the matter playing the popular town sheriff. However, it's Sam Rockwell who is impossibly sparkling as the dim-witted, mildly racist deputy cop of a mama's boy who is treated still with a measure of redeemable humanity. It's a brilliantly complex performance that casually oscillates from town idiot comic relief to hot-tempered abuser and then sad detective in an impressive arc for an otherwise stock character archetype.

Somehow, Peter Dinklage, game as ever, kind of walks in as a hilarious tertiary character who pines for Mildred and is absolutely hilarious in how he interacts with other townspeople. However, John Hawkes as the frightening abusive ex-husband feels out of a different story especially with the punchlines about his teenage girlfriend. McDonagh almost has too much fun creating these lived-in, but ultimately superfluous characters, to assure the Midwest town setting feels real.

Caleb Landry Jones, who seems to show up in everything, offers a nice but small turn as the small-town advertiser who facilitates the titular billboards. Even he gets a small but poignant moment of forgiveness and redemption. The talented Lucas Hedges continues to show his range as an actor as Mildred's long-suffering son who both humanizes and is exasperated by his mother's wild behaviour.

McDonagh's unique talent for injecting boisterous but grim humour into disturbing subject matter makes his films so lively despite their bleak nature. Three Billboards rests on the performances of McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell playing vastly different yet sort of complementary combatants who all want to do good despite their grave character flaws and contradictory actions.

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