You never know quite what to expect in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” It's a movie as eccentric as its title suggests but it's also an expertly written and acted searing drama about loss, vengeance, and a microcosm of the current state of affairs in this country. Oh and it's also wickedly funny. Sort of in the vein of “Fargo,” writer/director Martin McDonagh takes the tragic story of a mother's loss and turns it on its head in a way you rarely encounter in mainstream movies. Frances McDormand leads a fantastic cast as a woman hell bent on starting a war of words with the local cops who have yet to find her daughter's killer. In lesser hands it sounds like a movie-of-the-week tearjerker, but here it's a fiery indignation about the role of authority, the nature of violent crime, and the questionable morals of its central characters. Did I mention it was really funny? Oh right I did. This is a one of a kind movie-going experience and a fresh alternative to all that Marvel vs DC crap that's been going around.
“Three Billboards” revolves around a terrible, violent crime. The rape and murder of a teenage girl. But it takes place nearly a year after this horrific events (which we never see). Instead, the film doesn't focus on the victim but rather the questionable behavior of her grieving, pissed off mother Mildred (McDormand) who challenges the cops to solve her daughter's murder by purchasing three billboards just outside of town displaying a controversial message to the town's sheriff. The town is practically turned upside down as Mildred practically begins a war between her and the town's police force. There's the sympathetic Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) who happens to be dying of cancer. And then there's bad-tempered Officer Jason Dixon (a perfectly cast Sam Rockwell) who trades nasty barbs with Mildred and anyone else who stands in his way. The billboards are a catalyst for what sets off violent confrontations. But it's also funny I swear.
The film comes from the mind of Martin McDonagh who showed off his flair for mixing crime, comedy, and drama in his critical hit “In Bruges.” He slowly peels away the layer in this story of horrible violence in small town America. He paints broader strokes that deal with racism, homophobia and the clash between cops and civilians that have made headlines around the country. But there's also quick wit here with his fascinating characters who are always making questionable decisions whether it's the “heroes” and “villains.” It's a fine line of course. All of this is wrapped up in a mystery that is really second fiddle to the tension unfolding among the characters.
The acting here is top notch. McDormand was born to play the role which feels like a fun echo of her good-natured Fargo character Marge Gunderson. Rockwell playing a difficult character to like is fascinating here. Harrelson plays off his southern charm in a way that completely fits. He's really the soul of the film (along with Carter Burwell's uneasy score). Caleb Landry Jones, who played such a creepy, nasty character earlier this year in “Get Out” is in opposite form here but no less charming. And there are minor but solid turns from Oscar nominees Lucas Hedges and John Hawkes. Oh and Peter Dinklage is there as well.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a fantastically original film. It has an amazing sense of time and place. There's nothing too flashy about it, but it features one of the most electric scripts of the year. It's witty and unpredictable and will stay with you long after it's over. GRADE: A