Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I've been waiting all year for a front-runner, a film to set the standard to which every movie that follows will have to try to measure up. I don't have to wait any longer. Writer/director Martin McDonagh takes us to a little-used patch of road in rural Missouri where the sudden use of three derelict billboards begin to raise the eyes of the local community.

After months of seeing no progress in the investigation into her daughter's (Kathryn Newton) gruesome murder, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents out those three unused billboards to send a message to the community in general and the cancer-stricken Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) in particular.

Darkly humorous, yet deadly serious, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an immensely-watchable and thoroughly-enjoyable film. Filled with flawed, angry, sullen, and sad characters, the film offers no easy answers, no heroes or villains (although Sam Rockwell's shit-kicker Southern deputy comes damn close), but just people of varying character doing what they believe is right.

McDonagh's script is nearly perfect. Other than a couple of lines that are a bit too on the nose, and one questionable twist, it hits nearly all the right notes. The story provides a juicy meal for all the actors to sink their teeth into. McDormand is amazing as the angry single-parent who's frustration masks her grief. It would be easy to dismiss Rockwell's character as a dumb son of a bitch, but McDonagh never settles for easy answers offering more for the character than we see coming. Harrelson provides both depth and charm to a character who simply doesn't have the clues or skills necessary to meet Mildred's demands despite rather enjoying the woman's audaciousness. Even minor characters such as Kerry Condon as Mildred's ex-husband's new teenage girlfriend, Abbie Cornish as the sheriff's wife, or Peter Dinklage, who has more than a passing interest in Mildred, are all given moments to shine. I could have easily spent another hour in Ebbing getting to know these characters even more.

Better known for larger CGI-heavy projects (he shot both Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy), cinematographer Ben Davis dresses up North Carolina (where the film was actually shot) to pass for Midwestern Missouri and provides the film a look whose long shadows remind of us a looming darkness never far out of reach.

For a movie about murder, rape, arson, cancer, pain, scars, racism, and hatred, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is incredibly, impossibly, funny. It's dark humor to be sure, but I defy you not laugh when the swear-filled zingers start flying. The late great George Carlin said anything can be funny depending on how you construct the joke. McDonagh runs with that concept to provide us with a cathartic kind of humor through the troubling times these characters find themselves trapped with no escape in sight. While I've enjoyed his earlier work, this film has a defter touch and a stronger (if emotionally raw) center. It's breathtaking to watch unfold.

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