Martin McDonagh works with three types of film-making clay when he writes and directs a film, and they are as follows: creative obscenities; measured but brutal violence; and laser sharp focus on the human condition. In his plays and films alike, people find themselves in absurd situations that somehow wind up with very human results, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is certainly no exception. While the film isn't as tightly put together as his previous films, it is still very much a must see in the race up to the finish of 2017.
After her daughter is raped and murdered, and a police investigation hasn't yielded any solid leads, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) officially declares war on the police department of Ebbing, Missouri. Singling out Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) as her target of ridicule, she rents three billboards on a stretch of road that barely ever gets used outside of town. But what starts out as being a stark contrast to the environment around it turns into a rapidly escalating situation, one that eventually draws more of the townsfolk into its path as it progresses.
In particular, you're going to be hearing a lot of folks crowing about Frances McDormand's commanding performance as Mildred, and that's something I can totally get behind. McDormand's command over a scene has always been something you could count on her bringing to any film she's ever worked on. But when it comes to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, there are several points where the narrative weaves between lanes of emotionally draining material and darkly comic wonder, with her protagonist serving as the axis to the film's shifts. Just like the script she's working with, Frances McDormand manages to walk both sides of the line with equally devastating effect.
But while Martin McDonagh's latest dramedy is undoubtedly commanded by Mildred and her actions, the effects they have on other characters around her lead to equally stellar performances from the supporting cast. In particular, Woody Harrelson's even-handed police chief, and his hot-headed deputy played by Sam Rockwell, are of special interest. Not only are both men returning collaborators of McDonagh's, but they're also representative of the two sides of the modern police officer's archetype. Harrelson plays the stoic lawman who truly lives the law and order he believes in, while Rockwell is the more damaged cop who isn't afraid to bend the rules to get the job done.
As much as folks are going to be talking about Frances McDormand come Oscar season, they'll more than likely speaking towards Sam Rockwell's portrayal of Officer Dixon. As his battle of wits with Mildred Hayes escalates to further levels of anger and one-upmanship, the events only serve to show just how alike both participants are when pursuing what they believe to be justice. In a lesser movie, we'd totally be on Mildred's side, but in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, we're forced to consider both sides of the matter, as the film shows us both sides in humane detail.
While all of McDonagh's signatures are definitely on display in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it feels like this round is a little off. The over-arcing story in this small community doesn't seem as tuned or taut as either In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths, and because of that, some characters and story points don't seem as strongly connected to the central narrative as those previous films would have. That having been said, the finished product is still very much a Martin McDonagh production, and it's still as engaging, amusing, and effecting as his fans would have hoped.
If Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri isn't making you cry, it's making you either laugh or think in equal measure. Martin McDonagh's eye for timely drama and thoughtfully offensive comedy is as keen as it's ever been. Sure enough, there's some memorable one-liners, well drawn characters, and an ending that'll have folks debating what truly happened after the screen has gone dark. In short, it's the dark comedy that this awards season really needs, in a time and place that can truly understand it.