It's been seven months since divorced, small town mom Mildred Hayes's (Frances McDormand) teenaged daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton, HBO's 'Big Little Lies') was raped and murdered with no suspects identified. Mildred's guilt and grief have fueled her fury and she finds a way to wage war with her local police department when she drives by "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."
Irish playwright Martin McDonagh stormed onto film screens with his debut, "In Bruges," then disappointed with his followup, "Seven Psychopaths." His third film finds him back in form with a pitch black, if not quite pitch perfect, comedy brought to life by an outstanding cast. The film, which has elements of a Western in both story and music (Carter Burwell, "Wonderstruck"), was written for McDormand and although it is nigh impossible to imagine anyone else in this role, it is also a Midwestern spin on the actress's Olive Kitteridge. But McDonagh hasn't written a character piece so much as an analysis of rage. It is the arbiter between the town's two most emotionally afflicted who receives our sympathy, not the film's protagonist.
Right after noting those shabby billboards reflecting ads from decades past, Mildred marches into Ebbing Advertising, asking owner Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones, "American Made") if her message is legal. Pleased to profit from a long forgotten asset, Red takes the job. The citizens of Ebbing are horrified by the massive orange-red signs which read 'Raped while dying,' 'And still no arrests?, 'How come, Chief Willoughby?' as one drives down Drinkwater Road. That's because Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is beloved by his community, a good guy with his own impending tragedy, something Mildred is well aware of and not unmoved by.
But despite the chief's fairness, he's supportive of one of his cops, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a mommy's boy racist rumored to have tortured a black prisoner and when Dixon gets involved with advice from his mom (Sandy Martin, "Napoleon Dynamite"), the situation escalates. Mildred's boss (Amanda Warren, HBO's 'The Leftovers') at Southern Charms gift shop is arrested on a trumped up charge, Welby beaten and thrown out a window, Molotov cocktails hurled after hours at a police station Mildred's horrified to learn was not empty.
McDonagh's fleshed out Mildred's world with her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges, "Manchester by the Sea"), who alternately spars with and protects her; her ex, Charlie (John Hawkes), whose relationship with a 19 year-old (Samara Weaving, "Monster Trucks") irks her to no end (and provides much of the comedy, Weaving's cluelessness and timing excellent) and James (Peter Dinklage), her pool playing partner and alibi provider whose chivalry goes unrewarded. But if McDormand is McDonagh's opening salvo and forward thrust, Harrelson is his secret weapon, Willoughby's wise and kindly presence gracing the proceedings long after the actor's departure ("Bright Star's" Abbie Cornish plays his wife, Anne). The filmmaker gives his pseudo-Western a jolt of "Blazing Saddles," for Dixon anyway, when Chief Abercrombie (Clarke Peters, "John Wick") arrives just in time for a surreal display in downtown Ebbing.
The production captures small town life, its businesses and homes reflecting long held traditions defining their occupants. The screenplay is a carefully balanced mixture of comedy and brutal violence, Angela's fate uncommonly horrific. McDonagh isn't interested in solving any mysteries though, his pinpointing of a suspect left weirdly ambiguous, the revelation of who burned down Mildred's billboards making little sense (if anything, that act is as cruel reminder of what led to them in the first place). Instead, with "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" McDonagh's spun his own culture war and he's opted for a happy ending.
Robin also gives "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" a B.
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