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Darkly comic, incendiary and riveting, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a whiplash inducing experience. At one moment, the film has the audience laughing at something absurd and hilarious. Then, in the next, the movie turns to something sobering and disturbing. Perhaps one of the points of Three Billboards is that very feeling, that life and death come at us from such bizarre angles and at such unpredictable times, that we often do not know whether we should laugh, cry, scream or sob. If that was the goal of the film, well done, all. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards has (and I am going to try NOT to make this a motif of the review) three things going for it: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. All three are nominated for Academy Awards and the nominations are more than well deserved. Theirs are brave performances, performances that shine lights in dark places, that resonate with realism and, specifically in the cases of McDormand and Rockwell, that illustrate something ugly that lurks in us all.
They are all but impossible from which to look away.
McDormand is predictably brilliant as Mildred Harris, a mother turned inside out by the grief she feels over the rape and murder of her only daughter. Dissatisfied with the efforts of the police at solving the case, Mildred pays for the three billboards that lend themselves to the film’s title, billboards that call out law enforcement in general and the Chief of Police in particular for their lack of action. This is a role that few other than McDormand could assay. She is riveting in rage and pain and laughter. She paints a character who is unkind and unfocused, lashing out at anything that moves. She is often hard to watch but McDormand is fully in command.
Harrelson’s Chief Whilloughby is another note-for-note perfect Harrelson creation. How good has Woody Harrelson become? Of all the characters in movie, Whilloughby comes off as the most rational and reasonable but Harrelson is not satisfied to play him straight. Rather, what may have been a simplistic performance in the hands of a lesser talent becomes a brilliant one. He, too, is nominated for an Academy Award, nominated for cause. In a movie of great performances, his is the most measured and the most heartbreaking.
Let us make that three acting nominations as Sam Rockwell, too, gets a nod for his work as Dixon, an unrepentant, uneducated racist cop who is loyal to Whilloughby to a fault. A monster of emotion who seems, much like McDormand, to let his rage flow in all directions, Dixon becomes a surprising (and some feel disappointing) focal point of the movie. Rockwell somehow manages to keep the audience interested in Dixon. That is something of a feat.
Martin McDonagh’s film is up for Best Picture and he is nominated for Best Original Screenplay among others and all of those accolades are certainly deserved. There is a lot going on in Three Billboards, but left inconclusive, most of it, frankly, is unappealing. Moral quandaries of deep complexity are introduced then shattered by anger. Characters face themselves in their darkest places and often find ways to go to places even darker still. Themes overlap and intertwine and provide no easy answers or resolutions. On many levels, Three Billboards is quite hard to watch. Moral murkiness does not always equate with brilliance, however, and I wish that Three Billboards would have taken a few more stands on the themes – the many, many themes – it so well introduces. An enticing set up is not the movie’s problem. Paying it off is.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI receives THREE AND A HALF WELL, BILLBOARDS out of a possible FIVE.