Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Dir.: Martin McDonagh
Martin McDonagh has made a name for himself in cinema after a pretty well-received tenure in theater, and he continues to write both for the screen and stage to critical acclaim. His newest effort on the big screen, intriguingly titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, marks his first film in half a decade. Like his previous films, Three Billboards combines dark comedy with intense drama, and it presents a story as tragic and bleak as it is heartfelt and hopeful. This dichotomy of storytelling is a careful balance that McDonagh attempts to maintain with each of his films, but so far, this film most skillfully portrays his risque tone and uncompromising narrative developments well. It's simply one of the best films of the year, as every aspect of the film is not only well made, but entirely earned, justified and refreshing.
The film tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a mother whose daughter is brutally murdered and whose death remains unsolved after over a year. She takes it upon herself to rent three billboards antagonizing the police department of the local town of Ebbing, led by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), and the rest of the film shows the tension and drama that occurs as a result of Mildred's stand. This story presents perhaps McDonagh's most acceptible work to date, as it features universal themes of grief and the search for justice, but it combines these universal themes with the dark humor, unpredictability and sheer audacious nature of the scenes themselves that McDonagh showed in previous films. Most directors don't succeed where McDonagh does here, in blending this universality with their signature style, but thanks to committed performances and a screenplay that subverts crime drama cliches and police procedural arcs at every turn, this is the closest to a masterpiece McDonagh has crafted thus far.
Some scenes are entirely uncomfortable, almost to the point of horror, such as a scene with Mildred's ex husband coming to her home, and a scene with an unruly customer in a gift shop, but such dread and intensity comes with the nature of the storytelling itself, as one character even states the obvious for the audience members that remain clueless ("anger besets further anger"). McDonagh also refuses to write the rural Southern town and its characters as politically correct, which helps with the immersion factor of the film, even though there are some intelligent debates on the nature of the police force in modern America. Though I felt some of the dialogue scenes in the film, such as Mildred's last words to her daughter, were a little too bleak to border on cheesy, I never felt that this severely diminished the film's integrity. It's an uncomfortable watch and the ending presents a rather nihilistic message, but one that is necessary in today's PC world. This film's main goal is to illustrate that at various times in life, we lose control, and the characters of this film are confronted with this reality time and time again.
The performances in the film are almost guaranteed to garner nominations, particularly for Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. This is the best role McDormand has had since her 90s Fargo-era days, as she is able to show range within a very strong-willed, serious woman dead set on seeking posthumous justice for her daughter. Rockwell's character develops perhaps the most in the film, however, as he begins as a racist, alcoholic and violent police officer, and by the end of the film, he is shown to be one of the most empathetic characters. Woody Harrelson is excellent as usual, but he plays in his usual wheelhouse here - his performance was good but not exemplary like the other two mentioned. John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage's brief appearances are well done, though I wish we could have had more for their characters to do. Finally, Lucas Hedges and Caleb Landry Jones were servicable, but nothing too different or too much more involved than other films we have seen from them - though I will say Jones's encounters with Rockwell's character provide some of the best scenes in the film. The exemplary acting on display here further compliments the expertly written screenplay, and I have absolutely no complaints from its cast. It's perhaps the best casted film of the entire year, neck and neck with It and Baby Driver in my humble opinion.
The cinematography actually successfully bucks one common boring trend (but one which Hollywood has perpetuated through decades) in many dialogue scenes: the way the camera pans back and forth between actor's faces as they talk. Many films have character A on the left side of the screen in one shot, then switching to the right side of the screen for character B in the next shot, and the conversation alternates to completion. Here, McDonagh's direction and the DP involved use a lot more creative shots to display such conversations, such as in scenes where McDormand's character talks to Rockwell or Harrelson on a swingset, a police interrogation scene, and various conversational scenes in the Ebbing Police Department. The camerawork is nothing revolutionary, and there are still some of the aforementioned traditional conversation scenes, but it is small detail that I think shows the director and rest of the crew's efforts at providing a fresh cinematic take on what could have been far more mundane under different hands. One particularly impressive tracking shot with Sam Rockwell walking upstairs had me floored, and if you've seen the film, you'll know which one I'm talking about. The music is done by Carter Burwell, a frequent collaborator with the Coen brothers, which is fitting since this film is pretty Coen inspired. While nothing exemplary, the score does its job and utilizes some great classic rock and country songs to relay emotion at key moments. The technical aspects of this film do a great job of complimenting everything else on display, and I have virtually no complaints in visual or audio presentation here.
While the film is hard to swallow at times and some of the dialogue did make me cringe, I still believe its other various successes far outweigh my minor issues with the narrative. This is McDonagh's best film by a country mile so far, and it deserves to be seen and discussed, not only for its acting and screenplay, but also for the message it delivers. In this current politically correct climate, it's refreshing to see a film that presents such a town and such a story without bureaucratic or otherwise restrictive, compartmentalized dissolution. It's a story that takes a more realistic approach to examining grief, corruption, and the search for justice than a lot of mainstream Hollywood films usually display, and it's one that features some of the best acting and writing in a story that could have been a mundane police procedural drama. It's at times hilarious, heartbreaking, and melancholy, and sometimes even simultaneously. I often have issues with films that betray their tone or that switch tones when the switch is not earned. Here, tonal shifts are more than earned. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a risk-taking film, and its risks pay off. It's one of the best of the year for sure, and I highly recommend seeing it as soon as possible.