By Kevin Carney
Director: Martin McDonagh.
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Kerry Condon.
In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths helmer Martin McDonagh returns with a film about an unsolved case that has great impact on a small Missouri town and its residents.
The film opens with Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) erecting three billboards outside of the town calling attention to the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton). The reaction from the townspeople is mostly negative, with many hoping to leave the tragedy behind them and move on with their lives. Her specific calling out of Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) proves especially controversial since he is dying of pancreatic cancer.
McDormand delivers a captivating performance as Mildred, dominating the screen during her more showy scenes and displaying great subtlety and nuance during her quieter moments, conveying a lot of emotion even with little to no dialogue. She is strong and dominant when she needs to be and displays incredible vulnerability with equal conviction.
Harrelson is excellent as Chief Willoughby, a man struggling with the knowledge of his impending death and his failure to solve the case that drives the entire story. He brings a great deal of depth to this person stuck in an impossible situation of wanting to right a wrong and being utterly powerless to do so.
Sam Rockwell plays Officer Jason Dixon, who has the most transformative character arc of any of the characters. Though he is a racist man-child who lives with his elderly mother (Sandy Martin) and causes a lot of problems for everyone else involved, Rockwell gives the character a lot of complexity and even sympathy despite his obvious flaws.
McDonagh once again proves himself a poet of profanity, bringing the same harsh rudeness as he has to his previous films. He displays an uncanny ability to explore very heavy and dramatic subject matter and accommodate a sense of humor and levity to it that never feels out of place.
The film features memorable supporting performances, with Mildred’s crusade to avenge her daughter’s death causing difficulties with her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes). Caleb Landry Jones gives a humorous turn as Red Welby, as does Peter Dinklage in his few scenes as Mildred’s friend James.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is its exploration of the complex nature of justice, particularly in regard to the notoriously hard-to-prove crime of rape. None of the bigger problems addressed in the film are solved and a lot of the questions go without definitive answers, mainly due to people’s willingness to ignore them. Due to the impact that the efforts to call attention to such things has on people’s lives, it’s easy to understand the desire to avoid such things.
Complex themes, breathtaking performances and an expert balance between drama and humour make Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri an unforgettable watch.
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