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Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Directed by: Martin McDonagh

Premise: A grieving mother (Frances McDormand) buys up three billboards outside of her small Missouri town to accuse the local sheriff (Woody Harrelson) of inaction in solving her daughter’s murder. The billboards escalate tensions in the community. 

What Works: Martin McDonagh is a filmmaker with a distinct storytelling style. In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths combined harsh violence with witty and coarse dialogue and the movies were masculine in a way that was playfully self-aware. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri carries on the distinguishing qualities of McDonagh’s films but this is a significant step up. Three Billboards retains the vulgarity and violence of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths but it is a more mature and complex film. The movie is shot through with melancholy that alters the pitch of the violence. Rather than the cartoonishly violent characters of McDonagh’s other movies, Three Billboards presents complex and complicated characters. They still speak with McDonagh’s trademark vulgarity but they possess a fallibility and frailty that makes them real. Three Billboards has complex characters operating in a vivid setting and the movie feels authentic. That’s largely the credit of the film’s terrific cast, chief among Frances McDormand as the grieving mother. The character is a difficult and violent woman who doesn’t always make the right decisions. But she remains an accessible character and McDormand is fierce but also vulnerable. Shaming the local police department doesn’t work out quite the way she hoped as the community turns against her and she incites the wrath of an overzealous deputy played by Sam Rockwell. The trajectory of Rockwell’s character is fascinating; the actor does broad characters pretty well but Three Billboards allows him moments of sensitivity, especially in scenes shared with his mother played by Sandy Martin. She is one of several actors in small but important roles who give this movie a distinct flavor including Peter Dinklage as a local who crushes on McDormand’s character, John Hawkes as her ex-husband, Lucas Hedges as their son, and Caleb Landy Jones as the billboard owner. Especially impressive is Woody Harrelson as the sheriff. Harrelson’s law enforcement officer parallels McDormand’s grieving mother and like McDormand, Harrelson is in sync with the rhythms of McDonagh’s writing.

What Doesn’t: As in Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh’s newest film struggles to find its ending. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri begins with a very clear conflict but halfway through McDonagh deliberately throws a wrench into the narrative that fundamentally changes the focus of the story. It’s admirable the way in which the filmmaker upends our expectations but at that point Three Billboards loses its focus. That is part of the point of the movie; Three Billboards is about how a sudden and violent death shatters people’s lives and what grief does to individuals and to a community. The movie exposes the uncomforting reality that we might never actually find a neat conclusion to our pain. That’s a more complex resolution than is found in most Hollywood films but it’s not satisfying in a conventional way.

Bottom Line: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Martin McDonagh’s best film so far. It has great performances in a story that is both funny and tragic and a complex tale of grief and revenge.

Episode: #677 (December 10, 2017)