“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, the third feature film from director/writer Martin McDonagh, surprised me in many aspects. Although many of elements in the film often feel disparate or disjointed, the movie somehow works better than expected thanks to its top-notch storytelling and first-rate performance, and I found myself quite involved in how it dexterously shifts its gear among many different modes. I will try to avoid spoilers here as much as I can, but I might ruin your entertainment as describing its plot and characters in the following paragraphs, so I recommend you not to read the rest of my review if you want to enjoy the movie as fully as you can.
The movie opens with its heroine making one decisive action after being frustrated and exasperated for several months. Around seven months ago, a teenager girl was brutally raped and then murdered in a small rural Missourian town named Ebbing, and her mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has been bitter and angry due to the lack of any progress in the investigation of her daughter’s murder. She comes to believe that this is due to the incompetence of the local police department headed by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), so she decides to rent three billboards on a remote road outside the town, and these billboards surely draw lots of attention because of their short but impactful messages directed toward Willoughby.
While certainly not so pleased by this blatant action of hers, Willoughby is not that angry about it because, like many of town people, he understands well how Mildred has been angered and devastated by her daughter’s death. He tries to find a reasonable way to handle this unpleasant circumstance, but it seems there is nothing he can do for persuading her to take away her angry messages. He looks into the case again, but it is very clear that the case is stuck in dead end with no helpful evidence, and Mildred continues to stick to her position adamantly with no intention of stepping back.
Meanwhile, her billboard causes several other conflicts around her besides the one between her and Willoughby. Her teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, who recently drew our attention via his Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “Manchester by the Sea” (2016)) does not want to be painfully reminded of his sister’s death again, and the relationship between him and Mildred becomes more strained than before. Her abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), who left his family for a young woman some years ago, is annoyed by the trouble caused by his ex-wife, and we get an amusingly tumultuous scene when he comes into her house and then argues with her while his girlfriend and their son are around them. As the scene wildly swings from one mood to another, we cannot help but amused due to its sheer absurdity, and the performers in the scene flawlessly handle their sharp dialogue while never missing a beat.
In addition, there are some town people who are pissed about what Mildred has done, and one of them is Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim, hotheaded police officer who is also your typical sleazy Southern racist. In contrast to his thoughtful boss, he instantly becomes furious about Mildred’s billboards, and he does not hide hostility at all when he happens to confront her at one point, but she is not someone who can easily be scared. That surely makes him angrier, and there eventually comes a striking moment of violence when he gets himself driven by hate and fury later in the story.
Once his characters are established along with their complex human conflicts during the first half, McDonagh throws a number of dramatic narrative turns into the story, and he effectively jolts us whenever we think we know where his story is going. Like his previous films “In Bruges” (2008) and “Seven Psychopaths” (2012), the movie is packed with a dark, morbid sense of humor, but it is also surprisingly sad and poignant at times, and I can only admire how McDonagh pulls off the ending which is simultaneously ironic and sort of touching.
The main cast members of the movie are impeccable in their superlative acting. Frances McDormand, who has been always reliable since her debut movie performance in “Blood Simple” (1984), is terrific as a flawed but determined woman who is virtually a force of nature for everyone around her. Mildred is not a very likable heroine, but we come to understand her pain and guilt at least thanks to McDormand’s deft human touches, and she richly deserves to receive an Oscar nomination.
McDonagh surrounds McDormand with a bunch of notable performers, and they are also very good in their respective supporting roles. While Sam Rockwell, who recently won the Golden Globe Award along with McDonagh and McDormand, is the showiest one of the bunch, Woody Harrelson is equally effective in his understated performance, which eventually becomes the sensible moral compass of the film. I was also delighted to see John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Clarke Peters, Caleb Landry Jones, Željko Ivanek, and Peter Dinklage having each own juicy moment in the film, and Dinklage shows us again that he is indeed a valuable scene-stealer.
I always enjoy movies which not only can make me keep guessing and but also can make me care, and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, which will definitely be one of major contenders at the upcoming Oscar ceremony, is one of such movies. This is quite a compelling mix of drama and black comedy, and I was entertained a lot by its strong performances while also impressed by its precise, confident handling of plot and characters. In short, this is one of best films during this Oscar season, and I am willing to assure you that you will not regret to watch this masterful piece of work.