One of the big frontrunners in this year’s Oscar race, anointed with as many as seven nominations, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film unlike anything one might have seen lately. I first caught it at the Zurich Film Festival in September last year, and five months later I’m still dazzled by its brilliance.
Humor – even if it is of the dark kind – isn’t normally what you expect from a film about rape, murder, and grief. But writer-director Martin McDonagh has made it his business to deliver nothing that one ‘normally’ expects. His extraordinary first film In Bruges revealed his skill for flipping in a second between laughs and violence. With this one he raises the stakes and achieves a whole new level of original storytelling and unpredictability.
Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a mother mourning the rape and murder of her teenage daughter seven months ago. The perpetrator was never caught, and the local police seem to have lost interest in the case. But where another person might have been broken by the experience, Mildred is consumed by rage and unwilling to let it go. She rents three billboards on the road leading into town, and on them taunts the chief of police, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for not solving the case.
Based on what I just told you, there’s no question that one’s sympathy would rest with Mildred. But this is not a film about easy answers or easy choices. Willoughby, the long-suffering sheriff, is basically a decent guy. The townspeople love him, and he doesn’t have too long to live. Mildred, meanwhile, is all sharp edges and acid tongue. She is angry, full of vengeance, and has a tough relationship with practically everyone including her son.
Now tell me which side you pick?
McDormand is exceptional as the glowering Mildred, whose rage no doubt stems from her unending sorrow. And Harrelson doesn’t miss a beat as the gentle cop who seems to understand her even though she’s driving him nuts. The two of them have an unusual, touching chemistry which makes it all the more hard to take sides.
The third extraordinary performance in the film comes from Sam Rockwell in the role of Jason Dixon, Willoughby’s deputy, and an officer prone to bursts of extreme anger and violent aggression. In one of the film’s most startling but effective scenes, he throws a fellow out of a second-floor window for defying him. But the film gives us a good look at Dixon; we see him alone at home with his domineering mother, we see how desperately he wants to please his boss, and somehow we’re able to understand him.
There’s a lot going on in this film, and you never know what to expect. There’s humor – big doses of profanity-laced black humor – pathos, of course, and shocking acts of cruelty and violence. It’s a delicious Molotov cocktail that McDonagh whips up, and leaves you to savor. The fine ensemble includes Peter Dinklage as the town dwarf who’s got a crush on Mildred, John Hawkes as her abusive ex-husband, and Lucas Hedges as her bullied son.
The glue that binds everything together is McDormand, who delivers what many are calling her best performance since 1996’s Fargo for which she won an Oscar. There’s a very good chance she’ll pick up her second one this year.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, some complicated racial politics notwithstanding, is a clever, gripping film that you do not want to miss. I’m going with four and a half out of five.
Rating: 4.5 / 5
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