British writer/director and playwright Martin McDonagh stormed onto the cinema scene with 2008’s In Bruges, a wonderfully funny, searingly dark, shockingly violent film about two assassins on a break in Belgium. His new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is equally brilliant and is my favorite film of the year so far.
Frances McDormand, whom McDonagh had in mind when he wrote the film, stars as Mildred, a grieving mother whose anger has been simmering in the many months that her teenage daughter’s rape and murder has remained unsolved. It begins to bubble over when she has the titular billboards painted, pointing an accusing finger at the chief of police, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), and his staff, whom Mildred views, justifiably in some cases, as ineffective, racist clowns. And while she has support of some of the townspeople, others believe she has overreached and battle lines are drawn. But as emotions in the small town begin to reach a boiling point, we find there is more than one story to be told and more than one point of view.
Three Billboards captivates the viewer by interrupting moments of hilarity or tenderness with sharp anger or sudden brutality. One never knows when Mildred’s rage will surface; a perfect example is her venomous response to the local priest when he appeals to her to back off. I wanted to stand up and cheer, but McDonagh doesn’t make things so easy or predictable, as there came a point where I wondered if Mildred might be going too far.
McDormand should be a shoe-in for a Best Actress nomination, and I’m pulling for Sam Rockwell, as a dimwitted, bullying cop, to finally win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Harrelson is impressive as well. If it weren’t for a small quibble I had with a couple of plot points, I could see McDonagh receiving a nomination or two.
Three Billboards won’t be for everyone; I’ve already talked to two people who said almost exactly the same thing: “I’m not quite sure what to make of it.” But for me, the acting alone is enough to make me want to go back; add to that McDonagh’s unique brand of dark humor and creative storytelling, and I may even go a third time… once for each billboard. If not, I’ll see you at the Oscars!