By: Nick van Dinther
The title Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tells you exactly what the movie is about. If you peek behind that literal title, you’ll find one of the best films of the year.
The movie follows grieving mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) after the unsolved murder of her teenage daughter. As she becomes frustrated with the local police’s lack of progress in finding the killer, she decides to take action of her own. She rents three billboards on the outskirts of her hometown to send a personal message to the authorities – what those billboards trigger is not what she expects.
It’s astonishing that this film attempts to tackle such heavy and dark material while still maintaining a level of humour; it’s unbelievable how well it succeeds. Truly embracing the very definition of a dark comedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri blends both dramatic and comedic moments seamlessly throughout its narrative. In its comedic element, the movie is one of the funniest films of the year, yet when it leans on heavier material, the story is tense and riveting.
Writer/director Martin McDonagh, who is known mainly for the critically acclaimed In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, plays a big factor in why the film succeeds. Although the entire story takes place in a small town, he does such a great job of making everything seem so vast. This leads to the use of some beautiful scenic shots, and playing around with contrast as the tone of the entire film seems to change depending on whether it’s day or night. It’s a great trick that is used to perfection here. The score has a subtle, almost western tone – never detracting from the story and always enhancing its scenes. The comparisons to the Coen Brothers are understandable, but the style and intimacy gives McDonagh’s latest a similar vibe to last year’s indie hit Hell or High Water.
The cast of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will gain the most recognition from audiences. Every performance – big and small – finds a way to punch out. The star of the show is Frances McDormand, giving a strong turn as a hardened, no-nonsense woman. McDormand, a surefire shoe-in for a Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards, has the remarkable ability to be funny without trying to be. Every choice she masterfully makes is directly in line with the character. Moments where she shows her compassion are so genuine, but limiting these reactions adds to her honest performance. Woody Harrelson, who plays the adversary to McDormand, is superb as well. Harrelson takes the brunt of McDormand’s ire and maintains a relatively likeable character, which is essential in showing that there is always more than one side to story. Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, and Lucas Hedges all provide great moments throughout the film and play off the leads very well.
As hard as it would be to steal the show from McDormand, Sam Rockwell comes about as close as you can with one of the best performances of his career. He is tasked to be brash, offensive, and funny while never becoming a caricature and maintaining his character’s depth. While McDormand will most definitely be nominated for this film, it would be a real shame if Rockwell doesn’t garner the same attention for his captivating role.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a dark, brash, funny, shocking, heartbreaking, and beautiful film. It started collecting awards with its People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, and it won’t stop winning any time soon.
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Nick van Dinther: @NickVanDinther