Movie Reviews: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There are few better ways to open up your film then four simple words; “A Film by Martin McDonagh”.  The playwright turned writer-director of the Oscar winning Six Shooter as well as the Oscar nominated (and one of the best films of last decade) In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths (and being the brother of John Michael McDonagh who helmed The Guard and the absolutely Oscar robbed Calvary) is a fantastic director who hasn’t directed anything short of superb.  His films are all contemplative black comedies filled with sympathetic assholes and bigots, fantastic and foulmouthed dialogue, and a far better visual style than to be expected from a former playwright (his latest two having been shot by Ben Davis).

Three Billboards has gotten a bit of a rep as a Coen Brothers film from another director.  Admittedly this is largely due to the presence of four time nominated (soon to be five and winning one of those times) Frances McDormand who starred in the duo’s Blood Simple, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Burn After Reading as well as appearing in Raising Arizona and Hail, Caesar! as well as the dark comedic tone and Midwest setting.  Those people are completely wrong however since this joint is a McDonagh one through and through.  From In Bruges it returns the plot of a meditation on the death of a youngster and a prominent dwarf supporting character (substituting Peter Dinklage for Jordan Prentice as seemingly mandated by law), from Seven Psychopaths it returns Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish and Davis, and from both it returns Željko Ivanek, composer Carter Burwell, its tone (well the second half of the latter film anyway), and McDonagh’s distinctive style of humor and dialogue

The story tells of a grieving mother who after a year of no arrests for the gruesome rape and murder of her daughter, buys up ad space on three abandoned and little seen billboards which her house overlooks reading “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS”, and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”.  While this gets the expected reaction from the cops (spoiler alert, they aren’t pleased) it also gets a mostly negative reaction from the townsfolk.  Part of this is because Willoughby (played by Harrelson) is a likable and well-liked by the town especially considering the open secret of his cancer diagnosis.  She gains a few supporters from the black community though thanks to fellow cop Officer Dixon (played by Rockwell), an alcoholic living with his similarly hateful mother and known for getting away with torturing a black suspect in his custody.

It’s clear quite early on that this stunt (which is certainly successful at drawing more attention back to the case) is a bit misdirected as there really are no leads and Willoughby does care (Dixon on the other hand deserves it 100%), but is more a product of her frustration and grief which her abusive and estranged husband and son want nothing to do with.  The town and Dixon’s reaction are similarly overblown and misguided, reflective of the very conservative Midwest town’s protectiveness of cops regardless of their conduct.  It’s a tragedy that offers no hope of a happy ending and yet not afraid to risk things with its comedic sensibilities.

There are a few thinly sketched characters (the abusive husband’s 19-year old he’s shacking up with jumps straight to mind) who are more groan inducing than anything else but for the most part, these are well rounded and hilarious characters with the big three of McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell well deserving of their seemingly inevitable Oscar nominations.  McDormand especially gets to show a range she’s rarely called upon in movies with her typical non-smiling, weary facade here hiding so much more.  Rockwell takes someone who could be cartoonish and makes him human and Harrelson is just a really enjoyable presence.

The cast is rounded out by the always welcome John Hawkes, Manchester by the Sea star Lucas Hedges as the son, The Wire alums Clarke Peters and Darrell Britt-Gibson, Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out, American Made, and The Florida Project this year alone), the deserving of being a bigger star Kerry Condon, and in a neat connection to my first movie review here, Kathryn Newton.  Burwell’s score is fantastic as always with its dreamy feel complementing McDonagh’s unrushed and meditative tone.  The cinematography was likewise great though there may have been a few too many distant wide shots of the billboards to maintain their impact, but they perfectly represent the tragedy of McDormand’s daughter in the way they loom over the story and are the spoken or unspoken center of every conversation in the film.

It’s an uncertain film but in the best possible way with a wicked sense of humor and plenty of subtext.  It moves slow but steady and the only time I started to question the length, it was more in a “this better be the end” and so it was within a minute or two.  It’s no In Bruges, but it’s at least as good as if not better than Seven Psychopaths and continues his perfect record of quality.  Beware though, for the trailers promise a far less serious film than this is and probably are a proper indication of the kind of humor present.  Still, it’s delightful when another film lives up to the hype and to my expectations.