In 1996, Frances McDormand brilliantly crafted her signature role with Fargo and earned a well deserved Oscar for it. Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri gives the actress another part that’s right up there in terms of one she’ll be remembered for. Like Fargo, it’s a picture involving grisly crimes with a comedic sensibility set to charcoal. Unlike her Marge Gunderson from 21 years past, Mildred Hayes displays the opposite of the former’s sunny disposition in the midst of tragedy.
There’s good reason for it. Her daughter was brutally raped and murdered seven months ago. Frustrated with the lack of progress in the case and the small town police force investigating it, she plunks down some cash for a trio of billboards on the remote road leading to her home. These signs clearly express her displeasure, particularly with Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). The local news media takes notice, as do Ebbing’s residents. The majority of them view it as an unnecessary stunt.
Mildred is a woman on a mission to get answers and her narrow focus puts her at odds with the Sheriff. A lesser screenplay may have made Willoughby a local yokel. Yet he’s written as a multi-layered man with Harrelson expertly portraying him. If there’s a law enforcement figure to root against, it’s Sam Rockwell’s Dixon. He’s known for racist tendencies and a general lack of skill in his job. And even McDonagh’s script takes him in unexpected directions that make him far from a caricature.
The promise that celebrated Irish playwright McDonagh showed with his debut In Bruges ebbed a bit with his follow-up Seven Psychopaths. The third time is easily the darkly charming triumph of his cinematic career. Billboards takes you in unforeseen directions not unlike what Fargo accomplished.
Much credit is due to the casting. McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell all give nomination worthy performances. The superb acting filters to the supporting players – from Mildred’s temperamental ex-husband (John Hawkes) and his dingbat 19 year-old girlfriend (Samara Weaving). Lucas Hedges is their exasperated son, left mourning his sister and seeing the constant reminders of her death to and from home. Caleb Landry Jones is memorable as the poor guy who must approve Mildred’s messages. He’s been a standout twice before this year with Get Out and American Made. Peter Dinklage turns up as a used car salesman with an eye for our heroine. Sandy Martin’s makes the most of her limited screentime as Dixon’s mama. We certainly see where he gets his lesser traits from.
Three Billboards is special. I was truly taken with its ability to be hilarious and touching simultaneously. It doesn’t allow its main characters to be simple. The screenplay is too intelligent to play them as wholly virtuous or completely evil. Everyone here has rough edges and questionable intentions and the desire to do good in their own way. Watching it all play out is riveting and one of the year’s greatest experiences.
**** (out of four)