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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Anytime Martin McDonagh comes out with a new project, attention must be paid. His works are crudely hysterical, painfully venomous, wickedly smart, and diabolically creative. He’s easily one of the smartest, funniest, most ruthless and talented writers working today. And now he’s writing/directing a cast with such incredible talents as Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters… Seriously, shut up and take my money.

I was expecting great things from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. So this is definitely another one of those times when I say that it met my expectations and you should read that as exceedingly high praise.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, whose daughter was raped and murdered roughly seven months prior. All this time later, the police still don’t have any clues or suspects for the crime. And Mildred has officially ran out of fucks to give.

The titular three billboards are old and long-neglected, sitting by a back road that fell out of use when a nearby freeway was built. So Mildred is able to rent those billboards for really cheap. She then proceeds to print on the billboards — in twenty-foot-tall bold black letters on a bright orange background — “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”. That last statement refers to the police chief played by Woody Harrelson.

It won’t be easy cataloging the various ways this turns into a massive shitstorm, but I’m gonna try.

First of all, the police are of course upset about this. Doubly so, because no laws are being broken and they can’t do a thing about the billboards. What’s more, the police insist that they’re doing all they can, over Mildred’s demands and suggestions that would violate numerous civil rights. However, based on what we see of Ebbing’s police department (specifically the two cops played by Sam Rockwell and Zeljko Ivanek), it seems that the local cops aren’t really genius detectives so much as they’re blunt instruments. They’re out to put the least possible amount of thought or effort into their work, which means pinning everything on the first colored suspect and applying extreme physical pressure until the case is closed.

Secondly, the community doesn’t like the billboards either, since it’s such a small tight-knit community and everybody’s friends with someone on the police force. “We all support you in your time of grief,” everyone tells Mildred, “and we’d do anything to help catch your daughter’s killer, but we can’t support this.” As if renting out billboards and making a statement was worse than raping and murdering a teenaged girl. Everyone’s fine with offering thoughts and prayers, but heaven forbid anyone should stick their neck out to be of any real help.

But then we have Mildred’s family. Her son and her ex-husband (respectively played by Lucas Hedges and John Hawkes) both want to move on with their lives, putting this unspeakably horrific tragedy behind them. It’s hard to blame them, especially when Mildred keeps bringing this whole thing up in the (possibly, probably) vain hope that the murder will ever be solved. Though Mildred’s ex-husband dealt with the loss by leaving her for a vapidly beautiful 19-year-old girl (Penelope, played by Samara Weaving), so there’s that.

To recap, death and grieving are both huge central themes of the movie, and they’re explored in creative and heartbreaking ways. Yet the film is far more focused on matters of justice. There’s vigilante justice, the rule of law, and when it’s right to take matters into one’s own hands. There’s the dilemma of whether to confess, how to achieve redemption, and whether redemption is even possible. And of course there’s a lot of timely discussion about racism, police brutality, accountability in law enforcement, and the unfortunate tendency for meatheaded bullies to go training for a badge just so they can get a gun to use with impunity. To say nothing of how conflict tends to escalate and hatred begets more hatred until things go too far and there’s unintended damage. Oh, and there’s also a sprinkling of toxic masculinity just for good measure.

All of these themes and ideas dovetail beautifully together, in large part because McDonagh is so incredible at juggling so many different storylines. The man is such a master of setups and payoffs, weaving in so many misdirections and lines of thought, that you’ll never see how the different through-lines intersect until you’re picking your jaw up off the floor. It’s really astounding how the characters develop in totally unexpected ways, taking the plot in so many unpredictable directions, so that all the different plot turns feel perfectly natural even as they hit like one sucker punch after another.

The cast is uniformly incredible. From top to bottom, first to last, every last performer works wonders with this sterling material. Every starring and supporting performance is Oscar-worthy, and all the one-off characters steal their scenes. Some of the one-off characters even start recurring in unexpected and satisfying ways. That said, while Abbie Cornish is a delight to watch, her role as Woody Harrelson’s wife really should have gone to an older actor.

For miscellaneous notes, of course the movie is positively loaded with the kind of pitch-black, razor-sharp, profanity-laden humor we’d expect from McDonagh. The visuals are also quite solid — in particular, there’s this recurring use of red light against the actors’ faces that looks very striking.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a phenomenal movie from a storytelling genius. The dialogue flies off the page, the performances are astounding, and the plot is compelling in how unpredictable it is. There are layers upon layers of compelling and timely themes, all explored in bold and shocking ways. It’s funny, violent, intelligent, and surprising as could only be done by this cast and crew.

This definitely qualifies as don’t-miss material. Go see it.

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