Writer: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Samara Weaving, Amanda Warren
Running time: 115mins
What’s the story: A year after her daughter’s brutal murder, Ebbing resident Mildred Hayes places signs on the roadside goading the town’s sheriff for not catching the killer.
What’s the verdict: There wasn’t much love for Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. We liked it, mind, but three rather than seven is writer/director Martin McDonagh’s lucky number.
This astonishing crime drama is set to receive a lot of love. Caustic, profane, hilarious and heartbreaking, it could be the equal of Calvary, the five-star movie McDonagh’s brother John Michael released in 2014.
Frances McDormand looks to be an odds-on favourite for her second Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal as the tenacious Mildred. Mildred is an exhilarating character to watch, intractable yet compassionate, fearsome yet barely keeping her grief in check.
But, her signs on the titular billboards do not sit well with many townsfolk. Particularly as Sheriff Willoughby (Harrelson) is beloved by the locals and whose cancer is an open secret.
Chief among the vexed is slow-witted livewire police officer Dixon (Rockwell), infamous for beating a black suspect he had in custody. Mildred’s husband Charlie (Hawkes) has abandoned her and shacked up with a 19-year-old zookeeper (Weaving), while her son (Hedges) resents his mother raking up the painful recent past.
Supporting Mildred is Red (Landry Jones), proprietor of the company that controls the billboards, plus her friend and boss Denise (Warren). Plus, Peter Dinklage as James, a used car salesman with the hots for the town pariah.
As tensions escalate, the stability of the community is threatened. All possible outcomes seem to risk putting everyone on the losing side.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a hot-button-issue movie assembled with the elegance and assuredness of a classic melodrama. Hell, Frances McDormand’s Mildred may be a nod to Mildred Pierce, the tragic heroine whose woes also revolved around her teenage daughter.
Alongside the melodrama, McDonagh tosses in a Spaghetti Western vibe. Main street is the site of many a showdown. Typically in front of the police station or Red’s office across the road. Or moving from the police station to Red’s office and back onto main street in one audacious moment of confrontation that knows how far to push the threat level.
But, the In Bruges writer/director places most of the violence inside his dialogue. Plain speaking, no-nonsense characters deploy salty invectives as their primary weapons of choice. Brilliantly so when disgusted residents run-rings around Dixon and his strong-arm tactics with minorities.
Most surprising is how well McDonagh lands Three Billboards… as a story of understanding and redemption. Woody Harrelson is superb as Willoughby, a decent man frustrated by his lack of progress in the case and stoically battling his illness.
Harrelson is Best Supporting Actor nomination worthy, but Sam Rockwell is going to sweep up those nods. Moving from brutal clown to someone far more interesting, Rockwell delivers a possible career best performance.
The journey the film takes with Dixon is one of the reasons it gets those five stars. This is Mildred’s story, but the dumb copper is in many ways her twin. Particularly when Willoughby explains to Mildred why her suggestions of investigation would shatter most civil rights laws.
And just when you think there are no more surprises in store, McDonagh introduces a dramatic story shift or contrives a hilarious coincidence to keep the audience on their toes.
As Three Billboards… recalls the heights of Fargo and No Country for Old Men, it is fitting regular Coen Brothers composer Carter Burwell provides the plaintive score. Seven Psychopaths and Marvel cinematographer Ben Davis shoots the whole thing in warm earth colours, including Mildred’s ever-present dark green overalls.
Easy answers are not permitted. But, from the kickstart opening to the complex, satisfying conclusion, this is filmmaking of the highest order.
Stick that on your billboard.