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'Three Billboards' a surprising, tragicomic triumph

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    This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Woody Harrelson, left, and Frances McDormand in a scene from "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

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    Frances McDormand in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Film-Review-Three-Billboards-Outside-Ebbing-Missouri-4

    Sam Rockwell, left, and Frances McDormand in a scene from "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release playing at Franklin Park and Levis Commons. Rated R for violence and strong language.

Running time: 115 minutes.

Critic's rating: ★★★★★

Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell.

One obviously unusual thing about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: The title sounds more like an off-Broadway (or off-off-Broadway) play than a feature film.

Something still more unusual, which you won’t know unless you go: It is likely to have an audience gasping. Multiple times. For multiple reasons. And that’s a good thing.

You might gasp over what the characters do, which is sometimes violent, frequently surprising. You could gasp over what they say, which is always blunt, often coarse, and on many occasions uproarious. And at the end, you might gasp a little inwardly — if such a thing is possible — at the clever, unexpected turns in plot and relationships that make Three Billboards a start-to-finish delight.

That’s not to say you should take your sweet grandmother or somehow-still-innocent adolescent. This is a dark, sometimes brutal dramedy in the vein of the Coen brothers’ best work. And like their Fargo, it features one of the best actresses to ever come out of Pennsylvania, Frances McDormand, in another utterly singular performance certain to get awards buzz.

Three Billboards comes not from the Coens, however, but from writer-director Martin McDonagh, a frequent playwright best known previously in film for In Bruges. His theater-based writing is revealed in punchy banter that is more pitch perfect than what most people can come up with in real life — including your everyday small-town Midwestern moron — but is richly entertaining.

VIDEO: Trailer, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

He has also provided a grand collection of indelible characters, most notably Ms. McDormand’s intimidating Mildred Hayes. One character calls her “tough as an old boot,” which is perhaps an underestimation of her steely, sometimes misdirected prowess.

At the outset, we see her driving on a rural road, stopping to appraise three weathered, long-abandoned — you guessed it — billboards. Before long, she has paid for stark words on each one:

“Raped while dying”

“And still no arrests?”

“How come, Chief Willoughby?”

The grieving, tough-talking, crotch-kicking, unsmiling mother of a slain daughter whose case has gone cold, Mildred is at war with the Ebbing Police Department. While that department includes aggressive knuckleheads, it is led by a sensible, if exasperated, soul in Bill Willoughby, played to perfection by Woody Harrelson. Willoughby’s life is complicated not just by Mildred and her billboards (which cause a community uproar) but by terminal cancer and Officer Jason Dixon.

Willoughby’s ordeals, combined with Mildred’s pursuit of justice for her daughter, bring memorable exchanges like the chief’s surprise that she put up the billboards to shame him even while aware his cancer was slowly killing him.

“They wouldn’t be as effective after you croak, would it?” she responds with unsentimental logic, and Willoughby finds it hard to argue the point.

In a film loaded with great supporting characters and performances, Sam Rockwell’s turn as Dixon, the racist, abusive, impulsive mama’s boy on the police force, could easily stand on its own. Everything he does — whether good or bad, and there are plenty of both — might leave you, well, gasping.

How Mildred, Willoughby, and Dixon interact with one another and with everyone else in town — including a romantically inclined “midget,” a tart mother, a villainous suspect, a loving wife and daughters, an abusive ex-husband, a sadistic “fat dentist,” and others who need only a minute or two on screen to resonate — ends up becoming more important than those billboards.

In every way, they, and Mr. McDonagh by his writing and direction, make an impression. They might not all be the most pleasant people to spend time with in real life, but on screen, it would be hard to do better.

The Block News Alliance conists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gary Rotstein writes for the Post-Gazette.

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