Has Frances McDormand Ever Been Better?
DIRECTED BY MARTIN MCDONAGH/2017
Writer/Director Martin McDonagh, known for In Bruges, follows up his last film, Seven Psychopaths, with the new film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Like his previous films, Billboards will feature several scenes of over-the-top violence, disturbing subject matter, a great cast, and probably the best use of humor I’ve seen in one of his films. Frances McDormand has possibly never been better since Fargo, and Woody Harrelson adds to his growing list of 2017 films that might collectively add up to an Oscar (along with The Glass Castle, LBJ, Wilson, and War for the Planet of the Apes). The film also features Sam Rockwell who also was in Seven Psychopaths. As endearing as he was in The Way, Way Back, Rockwell may be the exact polar opposite in this film as a character you will want to hate with a passion, but who is provided a surprising amount of depth.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri follows the story of Mildred (McDormand), a grieving mother whose daughter was brutally raped and burned in a field outside their town of Ebbing, Missouri. Nearly a year later, and no leads have been found to lead the police to who might have done this heinous act. In frustration, and as an act of defiance, Mildred rents three billboards on the same road for a year, calling out Police Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) and his inept officers for failing to solve the crime yet.
Ebbing, Missouri is a quiet (fictitious) town nestled in the Ozark Mountains with all of the cozy charm of a Norman Rockwell painting, complete with the tiny gift shop where Mildred works, and the embodiment of everything wrong with race relations in America today, with its description of Police brutality directed at the African-American community in this town. Its main perpetrator is Officer Dixon (Rockwell). A bumbling idiot of a man who took 5 years to get through the Police Academy, Dixon spews the racist filth he has grown up under at home. A drinker, and a fighter, Dixon is a sort of self-appointed enforcer against anyone who dares to question Chief Willoughby, or the force, or who helps Mildred in her quest. Just ask Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the man who rented the billboards to Mildred.
Other great supporting cast members such as Lucas Hedges (Manchester By the Sea, Lady Bird) and Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones, Elf, X-Men: Days of Future Passed) contribute nicely to this wonderfully quirky comedy-drama that is one part murder mystery, and one part comedic tragedy. In many ways it feels like the spiritual cousin of Fargo, especially with McDormand’s involvement, without mimicking any of the Coen Brother’s classic film. McDormand’s husband, Joel Coen, coincidently is the one who encouraged Frances to be a part of this film after reading the script.
McDormand gives Mildred a voice that no longer can BS. She calls it how she sees it, whether that’s taking on the local parish priest, or her chess-like moves against Chief Willoughby as she tries to publicly embarrass him to get moving on the investigation of her daughter’s death, even as she is a source of embarrassment to her son Robbie (Hedges).
The entire film is effectively gripping, and shocking, as McDonagh writes and directs the film as a serious drama of one woman’s thirst for justice. What is so endearing, is how much humor he is able to infuse into the story where you find yourself laughing through moments that no one should ever laugh through. This perfect mix of laugh-out-loud comedy contrasted with absolute brutality, creates a film that powerfully affixes itself to your memory and helps it rise to the discussion of it being one of the better films of 2017.
Rockwell gives perhaps the performance of his career in a role that makes the sleaziest guy he has ever played look like an angel by comparison. His officer Dixon is off-putting in how ignorant and gullible he is, causing one to totally underestimate the depths of his cruelty as his drunken stupors fuel his hateful beliefs that his badge gives him the authority to be judge, jury, and executioner whenever he sees fit. He is also the character that is given the most depth, and the best narrative arc in this story. Whenever Rockwell is on screen, you won’t be able to look away.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri may not be a film for everyone with its rough language and brutal violence, but it is one of the most original and entertaining films of the year. The cast and their performances alone are worth the price of admission in a story that shows that Martin McDonagh is hitting his stride as both a writer and a director. So if you see a billboard advertising this film playing at your local movie theater, be sure to exit immediately and take those billboard’s advice.