Once in a while, a film like the exceptional Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri comes along and smacks you so hard, you’re still reeling in your seat long after the final frame is up.
If you dig Martin McDonough (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), you won’t mind.
Someone might say that because he’s Irish that he can’t relate to we Americans, especially those who live in the South. My experiences down there lead me to believe that the characters, events and locations don’t fully resemble modern America in the South and yet, they’re not completely inexplicable either.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a character like Mildred Hayes running around anywhere in the world, seeking answers about what happened to her daughter, who was raped and killed seven months prior to the start of the film. It’s not to say that there’s not a sheriff like Bill Willoughby maintaining ‘law and order,’ or someone like his deputy, Officer Jason Dixon, who still feels very strongly in traditional values. Heck, he even still lives with his mama.
Mr. McDonough has proved time and again that he can come up with the most outlandish characters and situations to drive his plots forward. The zaniness comes from the actors who embody said characters with panache and humility.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is no exception.
Frances McDormand delivers an exceptional, Oscar-worthy performance as the aggrieved mother, Mildred Hayes. The beauty in her performance is in her no-nonsense approach. Despite being in a tumultuous relationship with those around her, she still cares, even if she can’t show it. Which is why she draws attention to the case by putting up three billboards asking the police to do something.
Woody Harrelson, has had two strong performances already this year with LBJ and War for the Planet of the Apes is exceptional as Sheriff Willoughby. He is a decent family-man who genuinely wants to help, but has his hands full with running the town. Sam Rockwell is Jason Dixon, a foul-mouthed namby-pamby who was coddled too much as a child and now doesn’t know any better. Mr. Rockwell, who has slowly become a part of Mr. McDonough’s acting troupe, gives an Oscar-worthy performance here as well.
Mr. McDonough doesn’t stop with just his main characters here. John Hawkes has a stare of a thousand deaths as Mildred’s ex-husband, Charlie. His young girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving) steals the show in every scene she’s in. Peter Drinklage would love to get into Mildred’s pants as James, a used car salesman.
Two young actors are making their second appearance this year. Caleb Landry Jones (American Made) as Red, the owner of the billboards, pushes boundaries with this role so much so, that I can’t wait to see what he does next. As Robbie, Mildred’s son, Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) continues to effectively play ‘traumatized’ (Manchester by the Sea). Here he adds a layer of muted sarcasm in just about every scene. If I had one nitpick, it would be that Mr. Hedges’ character was underutilized. However, he makes such a memorable and exceptional impression, that you won’t truly notice his absence. Abbie Cornish plays Anne Willoughby, Bill’s wife. Her character’s humor is subdued and I think it’s important that’s called out because it strengthens her character’s resolve.
Mr. McDonough’s script and direction are much more than just the characters and the world they inhabit. Ben Davis’ cinematography of the North Carolina mountains, which stood in for the fictional town of Ebbing, is exemplary. His use of color is critical to the film as well. An excellent example of this is in the opening sequence where the three billboards are surrounded by a gentle fog. You can tell the air is still. Yet, there’s something hallowed about the ground the billboards sit upon. It’s a moment of scary serenity because of how visceral it felt. Carter Burwell’s score exemplifies the heart and soul of the story and its characters.
As we get deeper into awards season, don’t mistake this film for being ‘Oscar-bait’. Mr. McDonough, his story, his characters and his town are all as real as they appear on the screen. The exceptional Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the genuine article.
* Note that the below Red Band Trailer is not intended for general audiences. Discretion is advised. The Green Band Trailer can be seen here.
Now in a limited theatrical release, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is rated R by the MPAA.