You had us at Martin McDonagh.
Martin McDonagh first made a name for himself in 2008 win In Bruges, a sharp and funny film about a disgraced hitman buying time Belgium. He followed it up in 2012 with Seven Psychopaths — a bizarre comedy about a couple of unprofessional criminals who try to kidnap a beloved Shih Tzu.
Now, McDonagh has finally returned to the limelight with his latest film (and it’s a mouthful to say) — Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Mildred (Frances McDormand) wasn’t always miserable. There may have been a time when she was actually happy, but those days have long, long since passed. She’s had a tough go of things ever since she married her abusive husband Charlie (John Hawkes).
The two have since divorced — Charlie’s now dating a nineteen-year-old named Penelope (Samara Weaving), while Mildred lives with their son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), on the outskirts of town.
But Mildred’s misery doesn’t end there. Seven months ago, Mildred’s teenage daughter Angela was tragically raped and killed. Mildred holds herself personally responsible and seeks justice for her murderer — the problem is the police have yet to make an arrest.
And now, Mildred has had enough. She believes she’s waited long enough for Chief Willoughby to have found the killer and has become infuriated with how little progress has actually been made. Now, it’s her turn to do something about it.
So, she rents three abandoned billboards that sit just outside of her house. “Raped while dying,” they read in sequential order after Mildred’s post are put up, “And still no arrests.” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”
Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take the police long to respond to these reports — which is exactly Mildred’s point. She’s hoping that, now that the public has taken notice, it will lead to an arrest.
However, it also leads her to be shamed by the public — while everyone feels bad about the death of her daughter, the town views the billboards in poor taste. Now, Mildred has to deal with various people and levels of harassment, including that of an overly-violent and prejudice cop, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), under Willoughby’s rule.
Like all of Martin McDonagh’s films in the past, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri walks a strange line between drama and dark comedy. Three Billboards might be the most serious and dramatic film that he’s made to date, but it’s one that still takes time to find the humor in the situation.
Which sounds odd to say, with a premise like this. Yet, McDonagh’s writing and direction are so well defined that he’s able to juxtapose the comedy and the drama in a way that feels natural and appropriate. This doesn’t undermine any of the emotional moments but also gives the audience room to breathe and relax instead of beating us over the head with melodrama.
The setting of the film is also an interestingly constructed one, as McDonagh works hard to create the “small town” feel. The whole thing feels rather Coen Brothers-esque (and not just because Frances McDormand is in it) in the mix of absurdity and tragedy.
There’s also great work in the performances themselves — Frances McDormand gives one of the best performances she’s done in years and could easily get nominated for her role. Sam Rockwell plays someone very out-of-character from what we normally see him as and does so in a terrifyingly brilliant way. And then there’s Woody Harrelson, who — even with such great talent he’s working with — steals every scene he’s in with such a memorable role.
Problems arise, however, in the way some of the characters are written. When all is said and done, no one comes across as being all that likable. While we sympathize with Mildred and her cause (especially in a flashback scene, which comes pretty early on in the film), she eventually crosses a line to where we can’t root for her anymore. Sam Rockwell, also, is irredeemable after a certain (incredibly filmed) tracking shot, even though the film later tries to re-align him with the audience and make us root for him.
Maybe the issue then is that the characters aren’t likable, it’s that the transitions they go through don’t come off as believable. We hope Mildred’s efforts turn out for the best, but her downward spiral isn’t one that’s able to hold as strong of an emotional effect on us as it should, given that the one flashback scene is the one quick look we get at her grief. Rockwell’s transition is one that happens in one rapidly unbelievable scene, as one second he’s basically the anti-Christ and the next second he’s trying to be charitable.
While this makes for a flawed movie, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is still well worth the watch. It boasts a great cast (Peter Dinklage also sneaks in there in a hilarious supporting role) and some impressive direction from McDonagh.
Watch the trailer here, see where the film ranked in our list of films we’re still excited for in 2017, and let us know what you thought of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in the comments below.
Dark comedy has never been so dark: 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' review7