Thursday, December 7, 2017


(UK/US - 2017)

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Zeljko Ivanek, Amanda Warren, Samara Weaving, Sandy Martin, Kerry Condon, Brendan Sexton III, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Kathryn Newton, Malaya Rivera Drew, Jerry Winsett, Nick Searcy. (R, 115 mins)

With its dark humor, small-town cops, generous doses of local color, quotable dialogue, shocking bursts of unexpected violence, and Frances McDormand heading the cast, it's inevitable that THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI will draw comparisons to the Coen Bros.' FARGO. But it quickly makes its case as very much its own film, and it's the best work yet from Martin McDonagh, the British writer/director who gave us the great IN BRUGES and the half-great (loved the first half, didn't care for the second) SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS. McDonagh expertly captures the small-town, rural atmosphere and succeeds in making every major character complex and multi-dimensional. Lesser films would've made everything that transpires black and white and one-sided, stacking the deck against the main character to maximize sympathy, but in THREE BILLBOARDS, everything is in shades of gray. Even the most loathsome characters have redeeming qualities, and while the outrageously foul-mouthed insults and seething anger fly fast and furious, THREE BILLBOARDS is, at its core, one of the warmest, honest, and most emotional films to hit theaters in some time.

Seven months after her teenage daughter Angela was raped, doused in gasoline, and burned to a crisp, Mildred Hayes (McDormand) has run out of patience. There's no leads, no breaks, and local police are still reeling from a recent scandal where Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist cop with serious anger management issues, beat and tortured a black suspect. Consumed with bitterness and rage and past her breaking point, Mildred rents out three billboards near her home outside the tiny town of Ebbing, MO, on a virtually abandoned stretch of road that's been rarely used in the 30 years since a nearby highway was constructed. They say, in succession, "Raped While Dying," "And Still No Arrests?" and "How Come, Chief Willoughby?" Understandably, police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is upset, explaining to Mildred that there was no DNA match, no witnesses, and nothing for them to go on. The billboards attract the attention of the local and regional media and earn Mildred the scorn of Ebbing's residents, with none more furious than Dixon, who repeatedly tries to intimidate and bully Mildred and local ad agency owner Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) into taking them down. People also resent Mildred's aggressively calling out Willoughby since it's the worst-kept secret in Ebbing that the chief, married to Anne (Abbie Cornish) and with two young daughters, is terminally ill with pancreatic cancer and doesn't have long to live.

To say much more about the relentlessly busy plot would spoil the rich rewards THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI has to offer. The billboards have an effect on everyone: Willoughby, a good man trying to do his job and being put in an awkward position while facing his certain death; Mildred's son Robbie (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA's Lucas Hedges), who's already having a hard time getting over the death of his older sister (he thanks his mom for the billboards "in case I go more than two minutes without thinking about her"); and Mildred's ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), a wife-beater still prone to violent tendencies who's taken up with 19-year-old Penelope (THE BABYSITTER's Samara Weaving). But none are impacted more than Dixon, and Rockwell rises to the challenge with the film's most difficult role and most expansive and unexpected character arc, simultaneously presented as a dipshit, mama's boy cop who took six years to get through the police academy, a virulent and unapologetic racist and homophobe, and ultimately, a guy capable of recognizing the mistakes he's made and doing something to right his many wrongs. It's national treasure McDormand's film for obvious reasons, and it's probably her finest work since FARGO, but an Oscar-worthy Rockwell has never been better. All of the actors get a chance to shine, even if they only have a couple of scenes (especially Weaving as the sweet but dim Penelope, and Peter Dinklage as the local used car salesman and town drunk who has an unrequited crush on Mildred), and McDonagh's dialogue, while occasionally coming off as a little too scripted (particularly Mildred's rant at a local priest played by Nick Searcy), is brutal and lacerating in its misanthropic fury that's also occasionally sweet, if you can believe that. Only in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI could "cunt" be a term of endearment from a son to his mom and sister. It's a moving, perceptive, tragic, funny, and devastating look at grief, choices, and the haunting regret of words and actions that you'd give anything to take back. It's one of the best films of the year.

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