2017 | rated R | starring Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Zelijko Ivanek | directed by Martin McDonagh | 1hr 55mins |
Studio Pitch: There are three billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri. Pitch-black comedy ensues.
While the major studios crammed 2017 with franchise sequels and remakes it was the art house auteurs who came in and kept the year consistently interesting. Here comes Martin McDonagh at bat and, full disclosure here: his debut film In Bruges is one of my very favorites of the last decade. After the Charlie Kaufman-esque throat clearing Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a wonderful return to his formless form. It might not be the perfect cinematic shot of adrenalin that Bruges was, but any fan of that film will find a lot to like here as well. It’s a totally different movie, laced with McDonagh’s pension for common-man vulgarity, midgets, tragic comedy, realistic dialog, unpredictable turns and third act ambiguity.
There are two towering reasons why Three Billboards is so uniquely McDonagh and so much fun to watch, which we’ll spell out here as I go. The first is that the film’s entire premise, baked into the title, is set up and paid off in the first 10 or so minutes – and it isn’t one that would seem to flesh out into a whole movie. Mildred (Frances McDormand) is still grieving the murder of her daughter and after 7 months with no arrests she decides to purchase a year’s worth of ad space on 3 billboards out of town that call attention to the local police and shame Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into solving the case. She gets their attention, and that’s it, we’re off to the races. Between Willoughby lamenting that the case is tragically unsolvable, his sycophantic deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell, transcending the hillbilly role) and the rest of the town in the tank for Willoughby, all would rather spend their time fighting the billboards instead of looking into the case. McDormand’s foul-mouthed, quick-tempered Mildred and the local cops trade places between unstoppable force and unmovable object in an escalating war that ensnares the whole town.
Like Bruge, Billboards feels like walking a high wire without a net. And the net is formulaic story tropes. It is so resistant to any semblance of cliché that it leaves the audience nothing to grasp onto to try to get ahead of it. I had no idea where this movie was going to go from scene to scene or even what it would end up being about. The story unfolds naturally as each character reacts unpredictably to the challenges provided by the other characters and the themes come into focus around it. McDonagh actively knows the rules in order to break them. Will it become a crooked cop/revenge movie? A mystery where we learn the identity of Mildred’s daughter’s killer? A contemporary commentary on police corruption or media influence? It samples a little bit from each column and unfurls out in a lot of potentially rich directions. Characters start as heroes and villains and will swap and complicate their characters a few times over before McDonagh settles on a conclusion.
The 2nd glaring reason this movie is so great is because of how natural and real it feels. We have McDonagh’s great ear for bickering, cursing dialog to the multi-dynamic performances of McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson. More than that, I had to check to see if the film was based on a true story. If it was, that fact would have been blazed on the front of the film and the promotional material – there are few things Hollywood loves more than a Based on a True Story tagline. The movie isn’t, but it feels like it is and that is no small or easy feat. McDonagh drops us in the middle of the lives of these characters and they really feel like they have a history together based on a handful of past instances that are never fully explained (Mildred keeps goating Dixon about a previous case of “tortuing” black men). McDormand is just phenomenal here, given the meatiest and most 3 dimensional role she’s had in years. The way this fed-up, raw nerve mother barnstorms around the town issuing threats and beating up anyone in her way is so refreshingly un-PC. It’s the type of role people would call fascist if it was played by Clint Eastwood.
So there we have it. Not reaching the heights of In Bruges, but Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is still a wild farel animal of a movie that runs away the more you try to corner it. It comes along during end-of-year Oscar bait films, and it deals in dark humor, grief and self-reflection, but is also so Earthy and honest that it defies that pompously regal Oscar bait formula. It’s thorny and vulgar and doesn’t want to snuggle up and get you to like it. It recalls a lot of classic and awarded movies (for example The Apartment comes to mind), that start out one way and flow similarly down unlikely detours guided by the characters and not a template. It didn’t knock me out, but it is the movie to come out in this end-of-year season that seems like it has legs long enough to be reviewed and re-discovered in the next 5 or 10 years.