Movie review: Frances McDormand is riveting in Three Billboards

In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Frances McDormand plays a grief-stricken mother who will not be ignored. Expect the awards to pile up. Courtesy Fox Searchlight In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Frances McDormand plays a grief-stricken mother who will not be ignored. Expect the awards to pile up. Courtesy Fox Searchlight

Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn’t the only story about the blurred lines between doing the right thing and making a bad situation worse, but it’s the only one that matters. McDonagh has made a career of pitch-black satires that find the humor and humanity in characters who are experiencing genuine torment—the regret and shame of In Bruges, the addiction and mourning of Seven Psychopaths—and making Three Billboards is the next logical step thematically and stylistically. Featuring his finest writing to date, and brought to life by one of the best ensemble casts assembled this year, Three Billboards belongs on every cinephile’s awards season must-watch list.

The story follows Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a mother in the titular town who lost her daughter in a horrific crime less than a year ago. Mildred buys three long-forgotten billboards to remind the world and demand action. They read, in sequence, “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
R, 115 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Violet Crown Cinema

The effects of the billboards are immediately felt in Ebbing—some desired, some less so, but as Mildred notes, there is more activity on the case now than when the crime occurred. Some question directly naming Willoughby, a pillar of the community and a trusted law enforcement official. Willoughby himself, played by Woody Harrelson, is initially troubled by this—it is a case with no leads and no actionable evidence—but he does believe Mildred has a right to justice and respects her personally a great deal. Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), however, doesn’t take kindly to Mildred’s gesture, which is fine, as most people don’t take too kindly to Dixon, an oaf still living under the roof and influence of his racist mother.

Like any satire that deals in heavy subject matter, nothing that the characters endure is the object of mockery or punchlines. McDonagh aims his wit directly at the manner in which people behave—good and bad—when pushed to their extremes. As we get to know Mildred, we learn exactly how the confrontational nature of the billboards is entirely in line with her character. She is a force of nature unto herself and always has been, and McDormand’s depiction shows her loving and loyal side without using it to dull the character’s edge, as might have happened in lesser films. When she curses out friends and foes alike, it is pure poetry in both McDonagh’s writing and McDormand’s delivery, and would have been worth the price of the ticket alone had the rest of the film not been as intelligent. This is the role of a lifetime in an already underrated career for McDormand, and any nomination slate this awards season that does not feature her name can be summarily ignored.

The presence of Harrelson and Rockwell is a terrific example of casting both into and against type. Willoughby is a frank yet caring officer, perfectly suited to Harrelson’s soothing cadence and graceful ability to find humor in tragedy and vice versa. Rockwell is a master as the clown who attempts to appear in control, so his selection for Dixon may seem like a no-brainer, but his character undergoes a fascinating yet unexpected transition that will make anyone who’s tracked his filmography take notice.

For any other aspect not mentioned—editing, cinematography, sound, supporting cast—consider the omission in this review as an endorsement of its quality. Front to back, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the year’s best films.

Playing this week

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

Coco, Die Hard, Justice League, Lady Bird, Murder on the Orient Express, Thor: Ragnarok, Wonder

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

A Bad Moms Christmas, Coco, Daddy’s Home 2, Justice League, Lady Bird, LBJ, Murder on the Orient Express, Roman J. Israel, Esq., The Star, Thor: Ragnarok, Wonder

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

Coco, God’s Own Country, Justice League, Lady Bird, Most Beautiful Island, Murder on the Orient Express, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Roman J. Israel, Esq., Thor: Ragnarok, Wonder

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