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Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

November 17, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The latest from writer-director Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that plays with a remarkably handled tone, oscillating seamlessly between pitch black comedy and crime drama, and kept grounded by its great screenplay and amazing ensemble cast.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is grieving the rape and murder of her daughter (Kathryn Newton), and disgusted by the local police department’s seeming lack of action.  So she posts damning messages on three billboards just outside of town to put the pressure on them to speed up the investigation, personally naming and blaming Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrellson) for failing to focus more on solving the case.

But the three billboards end up having unexpected ramifications and consequences for the locals, including Mildred’s teenaged son (Lucas Hedges), the young guy at the ad agency who rented them out (Caleb Landry Jones), and second-in-command police officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a temperamental and immature cop who is prone to violent outbursts and still lives with his mother (Sandy Martin).

The film is carried by a fiercely compelling performance from Frances McDormand, who manages to convey both sorrow and deep-seated anger, and she finds her match in the ensemble around her.  Sam Rockwell in particular does outstanding work, constantly challenging our perceptions of his character, and brilliantly delivering what is probably the most interesting arc of the film.  Dixon is dimwitted and does some cruel things, but Sam Rockwell ensures that he is never easy to pin down and is much more than just a “bad cop” stereotype, and it’s positively thrilling to watch what he does with the character, especially in the moments when he elicits genuine sympathy.

Martin McDonagh’s multilayered screenplay brilliantly tackles issues of sexual assault, racism and police brutality, never glossing over these themes despite the often darkly comic approach, and the film is equally disinterested in giving us easy answers.  These are major and very serious issues that the film is taking on, so it’s only appropriate that the results challenge us in such a way, with the story not allowing its characters to exist on clear cut lines of right or wrong.  What makes the film such a ride is the way that it manages to provoke a whole myriad of reactions from the audience in any given moment, even forcing us to change our judgements from scene to scene.

The film maintains a constant, unpredictable tension that is punctuated by moments of dark humour, operating in grey areas and never giving us easy answers, while the plot keeps throwing curveballs that constantly upend our initial perceptions of both the characters and the story.  The film is brilliant for the ways that it challenges us to have empathy for its characters, even when they do unlikeable things out of grief and anger, and it also bravely asks if positive outcomes can ever be born out of acts of vengeance, and if revenge can ever be justified when the law isn’t moving fast enough.

The film explores very current themes of corruption within law enforcement agencies and the lack of immediate action on cases of rape or violence against women, approaching these topics from fresh and interesting angles, and taking on even deeper meaning in light of the now seemingly endless news of rampant sexual abuse in Hollywood.  While Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not always comfortable to watch for these reasons, this is also the point.  It’s a film about anger and healing, and whether one can ever truly lead to the other.  The final scene is stunning, leaving us with so many unanswered questions, while still feeling like the perfect place to stop.

The film strikes the right balance between being complex and challenging, but also darkly funny and wildly entertaining, and it’s this perfectly handled tone that makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri such a knockout.  I get why it took home the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.  This is one of the best and most timely movies of the year.

A version of this review was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival.

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