Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review
"Raped while dying and still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?"
Writer/director Martin McDonagh's third feature is his best yet, a perfectly tuned blend of black comedy and tense drama, expertly acted and boasting a bevy of rich characters.After In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, most will know McDonagh's style, deftly balancing dark wit with hard drama, but Three Billboards is undoubtedly his most assured work yet. Crafting the screenplay with the lead actors in mind for the parts, it's clear that he has gone out of his way to put all of the right pieces in the right places to make magic. Which is exactly what he does here. The premise has Frances McDormand's divorced mother Mildred, finally having had enough of the lack of response from the local police department, deciding to take drastic action to draw attention to the seven month old unsolved murder of her teen daughter.Putting the spotlight on Woody Harrelson's Sheriff Willoughby, Mildred is just as angry at his inept deputies, including Sam Rockwell's racist idiot Officer Dixon, a ticking time bomb of repressed anger and brash violence. As Mildred's actions trigger a fiery response from every corner, Dixon starts to go off the rails, with the media on the fringe happy to turn the whole thing into a circus. McDonagh's story is an expertly crafted mystery drama, rich in character, and unpredictable at every stage, allowing the incidentally witty interactions between these colourful individuals to offer further misdirection and put you off balance as the drama unfolds.
Indeed, perhaps as is key to all the great films, McDonagh keeps his focus on what's important - the characters - knowing that the rest will fall into place afterwards. Envisaging Fargo's McDormand in the lead role, the veteran actress embraces the character and rightfully deserves all the Best Actress talk with her commanding performance here. She's an utter force of nature, very seldom showing any kind of vulnerability as she goes about her very focused mission. Funnily enough though, Rockwell's odds for Best Supporting Actor are just as high, playing the least likely, least pleasant, and most bigoted, racist scumbag character you're ever likely to see, should earn the actor at least an Oscar nomination for his troubles. It's a performance (with a character who was, similarly, written with Rockwell in mind) that's earned the movie curious controversy, but unnecessarily so, as without the character’s seemingly irredeemable features, it would have been impossible to give him the arc he has. And certainly Rockwell deserves all the credit he gets off the back of this as he clearly earned it the hard way.
The great supporting cast, including a tremendous turn from Woody Harrelson as the troubled Sheriff and Abbie Cornish as his loyal wife, round out what is clearly McDormand’s baby (and, after Chastain’s Molly’s Game it’s been a strong start to the year for female-driven heavy hitters) and McDonagh works wonders giving almost everybody - large and small - a rounded character, the only exception being John Hawkes’ abusive ex-husband’s young girlfriend, who gets all the best lines but is just a - somewhat necessary - walking cliche who almost has no place amidst a group of individuals who, otherwise, could almost exist in real life. By fostering so much time on these people, McDonagh’s offbeat narrative almost takes a sideline as you start to become less interested in what will happen next in the story and more invested in what will happen to these characters.
Few directors can blend dark comedy and human drama so skilfully
Despite clocking in over the two hour mark - again much like Molly’s Game - Three Billboards maintains a steady momentum and keeps strong pace thanks to bitingly witty scripting and a twisty-turny unpredictable plot which keeps you on your toes - another testament to the strength of writing, direction and acting as the film seldom relies on actual action, and often instead employs disarming humour, yet still manages to remain surprisingly tense for much of its runtime. Few directors can blend dark comedy and human drama so skilfully, lending Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri an edge which is reminiscent of top tier Woody Allen (think: Blue Jasmine), but which still carries McDonagh’s own signature style. Well worth hunting down on the Big Screen, this comes highly recommended.
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