Synopsis – A mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder when they fail to catch the culprit.
My Take – Dark comedies is a particular genre which hasn’t found much love from general film going audience mainly as there are only few and far films in between who can be easily categorized as a good watch. I get it, they are very difficult to accomplish, and even harder to pull off in comparison to general comedy films, as here you also need to get people invested in the dramatic aspect of the film, while still keeping them laughing throughout the majority of its duration. If you consider two films over the past decade, which have successfully used the genre in favor of its premise, they have to be In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012), which were incidentally both written and directed by Martin Mcdonagh himself. However, with this film, he has clearly outdone himself as a filmmaker, as this is not only his best film to date, but also one of the best films I’ve received the pleasure of witnessing all year. Rightfully receiving unanimous rave reviews from critics & prestigious awards all over, is also easily one of the most unpredictable film of the year, and that’s coming from a year that includes films like Get Out and Logan. There are scenes where you think that you know where the plot is going, but then midway through it completely flips the script. Each scene has just the right amount of comedy and drama, and sometimes, despite the fact that you’re laughing, it’s easy to forget that jokes are being made by the large cast of characters who are just far enough out there to be funny, but grounded enough to be realistic find what should be an ordinary situation rapidly escalating out of control. Basically everything about this film works: from the acting, to the writing, to the direction and for the entire run-time of this film, I was invested. It has the perfect run-time of 115 minutes and ends exactly when it needs to and there is not a scene that feels out of place.
Set in the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri, the story follows Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a single divorced mother, who’s still grieving over the horrific rape and murder of her teenage daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), seven months earlier. To make things worse, her abusive husband Charlie (John Hawkes) has left her for Penelope (Samara Weaving), a dim nineteen-year-old zoo attendant, while her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) just wants to forget the past and get on with his life. However, still upset at the local police department for not making any progress in the case, she purchases the advertising space on three billboards from Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), calling out the chief of police, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who’s dying from pancreatic cancer. As expected, the billboards set off anger, violence, and revenge motifs in this small town, especially from Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an intellectually-challenged mamma’s boy police deputy, who looks up to Willoughby. Resulting in a scramble to figure out the results of the case, as the main characters end up having life changing consequences for being involved. This could easily have been a purely dramatic and serious film, but that’s not director McDonagh‘s style, as he naturally brings his livelier style to complement the slower, weightier sentimental elements of the story and takes a little while for the two to gel. It takes not only a considerable amount of skill to match deep-dark- heartbreaking dramatic storytelling and characters with a pitch black comic edge; to go the extra mile one should hopefully have a voice and director Martin McDonaugh is that voice. Here, what begins as a narrow and focused drama gradually escalates to a film with big themes and ideas, relevant social commentary, and much more subplots than anticipated. The film is packed with questions and a few answers about anger, revenge, violence, and kindness. The film is certainly doing its own thing, we go from extreme humor to a character committing murder in a heartbeat. From the very first few frames of this film, you can tell the tone will be handled perfectly as you can tell that directed Martin McDonagh was very passionate when bringing this film to fruition, as every line of dialogue either progressed the story along, developed a character, made the audience laugh, or provided deep insight into the event of the murder itself. While not having the bearings of a conventional murder mystery, many viewers may not like the way this film concludes, but in the context of the film as a whole and everything it’s setting out to accomplish, it really does have a realistic and true finale. This could have been jarring and it was, but the film is written so well that I ended up appreciating it because it was different, and balances well its seemingly contradictory tones beautifully by crafting a dark comedy that feels heavy due to strong subject matter, while at the same time, utilizing comedic moments that feel completely natural to the character’s motivations. Of course, he does fill the plot with lots of contrivances and moments of happenstance, but they create interesting and meaningful situations that force us to think about anger and violence and justice – all the emotions that we experience when we’re in pain – and the choices available to us in terms of how we respond. Its obvious great care was taken into this script and the method in which it’s constructed. This is also one of those films where there aren’t defined heroes or villains (minus a supporting character that comes in late) and everyone operates in morally grey territory.
You go in thinking you’re going to be rooting for Mildred going up against Willoughby, Dixon and the system to get justice for her daughter. It’s not that simple and I think you’ll be surprised how much you’re flipping your allegiances back and forth as the film goes on. The film is especially impressive in how it presents such this diverse range of fully developed characters, that are all extremely flawed and yet still very relatable (as both likable and seemingly very real people). Mildred behaves irrationally in her single-minded quest for justice/revenge, at one point tossing Molotov cocktails at the police station and kicking high schoolers in the groin (neither of which resulted in any punishment), yet Dixon’s over-the-top antics top hers tenfold. In one scene, he leaves his desk to go to the ad agency across the street to exact vengeance on the unsuspecting Red. There is also tons of snarky dialogue and condescending put-downs, some clever, others not so much, but director McDonagh can see the good in people and works to make that available to the viewer. At a key moment, the character recognize each other, not as protagonists in the midst of battle, but as human beings and the film becomes more about the complexities of the human condition than the eccentricities of its colorful characters. Although the film is about grief, anger, revenge and violence, it is extremely funny. Above all because of Hayes’ stubborn character and her ability to verbally humiliate people by her extremely sharp tongue. The monologue she delivers when a priest visits her house to tell her she has gone too far is priceless. Another thing I can say about this film without going into spoilers is that it is wildly unpredictable. One moment you think things are going one direction as expected then it takes hard left turn that only adds to the dynamic between the characters. As the pressure within the town builds and anger is pointed towards Mildred, we see many of these characters evolve in order to deal with tragedy and grief and learn to find peace and the film goes through a roller-coaster of emotions. One moment you are laughing your butt off from the hilarious dialogue then you feel like someone just punched you in the gut. With every victory you think this story brings you feel like it was taken away from because of the world’s unfairness and injustice. In lesser hands the mixture of dark and comedic tones would not work, but director and writer Martin McDonagh knows how to balance them to perfection. If there is anything that might turn audiences away from this film, it might be its harsh subject matter despite none of it every being depicted as well as its language and execution with the material. Also we are never given a reason why the selective enforcement of law of the town is so mysterious. One of the most talked about elements to this film are the strong performances; particularly by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. Rightfully so, this is some of their best (if not their best) work these eyes have beheld and they steal the show in every film they’re in. In a role written with her mind, in what can only be described as her most commanding on-screen performance since Fargo, Frances McDormand delivers a performance that will for sure get her into the Lead Actress awards race at the Oscars. Here, she is truly extraordinary, imbuing everything from a monologue to a fleeting glance with captivating magnetism and furious emotional weight. Sam Rockwell also gives one of the best performances of his career as the flawed and very misguided cop Dixon. Here, Rockwell‘s performance offers a huge amount of comedy while also offering some the most disturbing moments in the film. That’s not to take away the efforts from Woody Harrelson and Lucas Hedges, as well as the entire cast consisting of Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes and Samara Weaving, who give memorable performances and paint shockingly believable characters that we feel we know personally. On the whole, ‘Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is a truly great, interesting, disturbing, funny and unpredictable yet heartfelt drama with outstanding screen writing, near perfect editing and powerhouse performances, making it easily the best film of the year.
Directed – Martin McDonagh
Rated – R
Run Time – 115 minutes