Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri Review

After winning over theatre audiences in the ‘90s and early 2000s, Martin McDonagh moved into the filmmaking sphere and started racking up even more fans with “In Bruges” and the criminally underrated “Seven Psychopaths,” two sickly dark comedies lined start to finish with a brilliant albeit twisted humor and sharp dialogue. In “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri,” McDonagh takes those sensibilities and applies them to much heavier, timely subject matters: justice and police accountability.

By infusing a rural crime drama with dark comedy and casting Frances McDormand in the lead role, “Three Billboards” will probably earn more than a few sly critics’ labels of “the best Coen Brothers film of the year.” Truthfully, even without McDormand, the comparison would be warranted. McDonagh and the Coens take extremely similar approaches to screenwriting and are drawn to stories about criminals of the unlikely variety.

McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a recently divorced woman in the titular town whose daughter was raped and killed several months back. Feeling as though the case has been completely neglected by the local police department, Mildred buys up the advertising space on three long-vacant billboards outside of town and covers them with a statement indicting Chief of Police Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for inaction. This causes tempers to flare, causing a chain reaction of consequences that go deeper than billboards.

There could very easily be a purely dramatic and serious version of this story, but that’s not McDonagh. Naturally he wants to bring in his livelier style (and Tarantino-like propensity for violence) to complement the slower, weightier sentimental elements of the story and it takes a little while for the two to gel. The best representation of this struggle comes in Carter Burwell’s score, which drops its excellent Western-inspired folk instrumental motif for melodramatic, sappy piano and flute bits when the film slows down for more contemplative, character-driven moments.

Gluing it all together is a cast loaded with talents that have bounced between comedy and drama before. In addition to Harrelson and McDormand, there’s Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes and others who sell both moments of wit and moments of authentic human response. Rockwell in particular as a boneheaded, racist police officer with a violent streak keeps his character believably intact as his pendulum swings in wildly different directions. His character arc will make the film for many and break it for others.

Ultimately, McDonagh’s writing is as sharp as ever (the two-toned/double-sided foul language is on point). In terms of storytelling, he does fill the plot with lots of contrivances and moments of happenstance, but they create interesting and meaningful situations that force us to think about anger and violence and justice – all the emotions that we experience when we’re in pain – and the choices available to us in terms of how we respond.

Given the way the story presents as this crime mystery about police accountability, it would be legitimate for anyone to feel there’s been somewhat of a bait-and-switch in the direction and resolution of the story, if not a complete lack of sensitivity to those issues. That’s because at its core, “Three Billboards” isn’t really about these timely, socially relevant themes or the rape and murder case itself, but about what the case represents to the characters and how it informs their choices. The details don’t matter to McDonagh because the film is about something bigger.

In all honesty, that mindset suggests McDonagh’s style should probably be reserved to stories that cover less trivial matters, but “Three Billboards” gives us enough good insights and performances to warrant the experiment


4/5 Stars


Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, Abby Cornish


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