Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
by Jason Koenigsberg
Wow! Finally a movie in 2017 that fully develops complex characters and manages to tell a story that makes the audience care about the grief and guilt they feel, and the redemption that they seek. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a triumph. It is the most human comedy of the year so far and with only six weeks left in the year, will be tough to top. Three Billboards (the title is too long, cannot hurt to shorten it in this review) is also one of the best films about the human desire for justice, revenge, when those two concepts overlap that we have seen in several years. It is also about how justice and revenge give people a reason to live.
The opening shot is of tattered old billboards that have not been used in decades and are falling apart. A woman named Mildred Hayes, played perfectly by Frances McDormand, buys those billboards to send a message to the police that seven months ago her daughter was raped and murder and they have not done anything about it. She makes it a personal message to the Chief of Ebbing Police Bill Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson in yet another terrific role.
The plot unfolds as one would expect but the best part of Three Billboards are the performances, especially from the three main actors. Frances McDormand who already has a well earned Best Actress Oscar for Fargo (1996), owns this movie as a woman determined to have justice after her daughter was brutally slain. As the story unravels her motivations for putting up the billboards to get the police attention becomes questionable since she did not seem to have much else going on in her life and is dealing with a gaping void of guilt and loss. Woody Harrelson is great as usual playing the police chief and the less said about his character who takes some interesting twists and turns in the script, the more rewarding it will be for the viewer. Once again he further establishes himself as one of the better actors of his generation. Between this and War for the Planet of the Apes, he has had two outstanding performances in 2017.
The other great performance that demands praise is Sam Rockwell as a racist and lazy crooked cop, that is also a momma’s boy yet the more we see, the more we learn there is a lot more to him. Rockwell creates a lovably loathsome character that is one of the most interesting and entertaining characters from a movie this year. Rockwell has been one of the most consistently superb actors since the 1990’s and deserved an Oscar nomination for Moon (2009). It has been tiring to always refer to him as an underrated talent, I hope that Three Billboards remedies that and he becomes more well known, or at least recognized by the Academy in some form. There is great acting all around from smaller parts from Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage. They carry the dramatic scenes and create genuinely uproarious moments that never feel stilted or forced.
Beyond the performances, Three Billboards is a keen look at racial injustice especially by the police. At times this movie has serious moments and other times the police are betrayed as bumbling idiots like the real life Keystone Cops or Super Troopers. The cinematography is subtle yet dynamic when it needs to be. The red billboards with black lettering really pop and so do some of the fires during night scenes. The billboards themselves act as a metaphor for tearing the town apart while simultaneously bringing people together.
Three Billboards shows interesting parent/child relationships that are not often seen on film. The scenes between adult children and their parents are funny and tender. The movie is written by Martin McDonagh who helmed the clever Colin Farrell movie In Bruges (2008). That had a lot of similar themes and genuinely funny moments, but this is even better. Three Billboards is a film about disappointments in life and when you try really hard to do the right thing and it still does not work out. Those are not easy themes to write about or portray in a movie. In fact most movies do not even attempt to capture those complex feelings of inadequacy, yet Three Billboards manages to capture that on film in ways that few works of art do.