There are many words you can’t say on a billboard but in Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic and borderline brilliant Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri calling out the local sheriff for failing to bring to justice a rapist, arsonist and murderer is fair game. At least from a legal standpoint. This is the set-up for a crime saga unlike any other, McDonagh’s film a foul-mouthed mystery brimming with colorful characters, its jet-black tone and surprising emotionality capable of causing fits of laughter and bouts of urgent somberness in what is one of the best films of 2017.
McDonagh carved out a name (and won himself an Oscar in the process) writing and directing 2008’s also darkly comic and borderline brilliant In Bruges and though he appeared to have lost a little edge with his sophomoric follow-up Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh is back on top again, right in his element serving up a darkly witty, gasp-inducingly violent and cuss-filled crime film that proves to be delicate and at times overwhelmingly emotional.Frances McDormand is phenomenal as Mildred, a no-holds-barred mother seeking justice by any means after her daughter is raped and murdered. Her corpse burned, no suspect was ever gleamed. After buying up a triptych of billboards that accuse Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) of not doing his due diligence in the aforementioned case, sparing no detail of the brutality of the slaying on her freshly purchased signage, the town goes berserk at the defamation of their beloved law enforcer. A swell running through this otherwise quiet community that bucks the norm, shaking loose the worst in its inhabitants.
Perhaps the most rattled is Sam Rockwell’s Dixon, a hot-tempered drunk police officer who Willoughby keeps on the force because he claims, despite his many obvious shortcomings, the young man has a “good heart”. No evidence of this is immediately apparent, his moral authority highly questionable following accusations of racially-based assaults and a tendency to lean on physical tactics when townsfolk don’t act the way he likes. Local advertisement procurer Red Welby (Caleb Landry-Jones, good here) finds this out the hard way when he doesn’t bend to threats to take down the titular billboards. But he, like every character in McDonagh’s construction, is a layered character, one who unfurls in curious, unpredictable ways and Rockwell is flexible and fantastic in the role, as he is known to be.
Since we’re calling out performances, a tip of the hat to Harrelson as well who remains the sturdy moral center of the film and its welcome narrator. Even at his own expense, Willoughby is one of the few in this town willing to chuckle, his impending brush with mortality (a stage-4 cancer diagnosis rapping harder and harder on his doorstep) allowing him a fresh perspective on the oxymoronic immense meaning/blind triviality of life itself. A speech he gives about decay loosed many a tear in my audience. I found myself caught off-guard by the emotionality rippling through McDonagh’s otherwise searing hot humor. And that is one of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri most majestic assets – that it can oscillate from tearful to hysterical in the blink of an eye; McDonagh’s absolute control over our emotions an astonishing feat.
There’s so much to chew on with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that at first glance it may seem more simple than it is. But McDonagh has a way of exploring guilt and redemption, family and purpose, in ways that I’m not sure have quite crossed the screen before. This is a film stuffed with characters who operate in the grey area, characters displaying both detestable and relatable qualities. They are flawed, broken but deeply human and the performances never sell short the humanity of these characters and their intentions. The way they morph and transform, often in capricious and risible ways, suggests a filmmaker who is an acute study of Kafka.
Billboards is a crime film that doesn’t solve any crimes really, McDonagh’s interest focused instead on a detailed study into the aftermath of crime – how it reverberates through a community; the effects it has on daily life; the halting nature it conducts over so many lives. Many people in Ebbing are touched, wounded, scarred by the horror that sets into motion the plot but that doesn’t stop Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri from being uproariously funny. Even in moments of extreme barbarity, there are deep, belly-seated laughs to be enjoyed. Mildred’s sharp tongue spares no-one, her snappy verbosity and ability to call out and cuss down anyone and anything just as dangerous weapon as the service pistol Dixon often misplaces. McDonagh finds the perfect balance between acidic wit and physical, directorial humor to layer his comedic style in ways that echo a darker Edgar Wright or the Coen Brothers in their prime.
There’s so much more to mention but to get into the nitty gritty of what makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri such a spellbinding winner is to unravel the great joy of watching it unfold unspoiled. But from the performances – McDormand gives a staggering tour-de-force, Harrelson perhaps his finest showcase since True Detective and Rockwell crafts one of the most complex sidekicks of 2017 but supporting characters played by Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, John Hawke and Peter Dinklage made strong impressions as well – to McDonagh’s soaring directorial style and his piercing writing, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a sharp-tongued spell of immense treasures that needs to be gulped down by cinephiles far and wide.
CONCLUSION: ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ has smacks of knifelike dark comedy, a handful of brilliant performances (all hail Frances McDormand!) and a director (Martin McDonagh) back on the tippy-top of his game, rounding out into a breathtakingly funny and confoundingly sad crime drama that’s also one of the best films of 2017.