“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a film Jeremiad whose time has come.
A searing, dark comedy tearing into unaccountable racist, homophobic police, the impotent rage of the wronged, the small-mindedness of small towns and the redemption of the seemingly irredeemable and starring a “Justice League” of America’s greatest character actors, it’s one of the best pictures of the year.
It veers from explosive laughs and blasts of violence to the sullen silence of life-consuming grief. The dialogue tickles and scalds, the action surprises. And, no surprise here, it was written and directed by the brilliant, brittle Irishman Martin “In Bruges/Seven Psychopaths” McDonagh.
The Oscar-winning Frances McDormand is Mildred Hays, an Ebbing, Missouri divorcee utterly deflated by grief. Then she notices those three, long-abandoned billboards on the little-used road home.
She has a purpose. She has an outlet. And before The Most Out Gay in the Village Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones, terrific), who owns them, can find a reason otherwise, she’s rented those three billboards — questioning why no progress has been made in the police case about her daughter’s rape and murder.
“How come Chief Willoughby?”
Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, brilliant) is furious. And Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is dismayed.
Profanely dismayed, because this is a McDonagh movie, after all. Almost everybody curses like a Show Me State sailor. Parents — the sheriff has two little girls with wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) — and kids (Lucas Hedges plays Mildred’s embittered surviving son) alike, no matter. Let the blue streak commence.
Mildred wants results. The town, subjected to embarrassing regional TV coverage, wants her to stop. And that’s when her chess game of publicity and public shaming turns into war.
Cops here, she complains, are too busy “eating Krispy Kremes” and “torturing black folks” to find a killer. And that brings back her brutish ex-husband (John Hawke), brings out the worst in her dentist, the condemnation of the local priest and prompts the pleas of her son to stop amidst a rising tide of threats and counter-moves by the police.
Every “I know how hard it’s been for you” earns an eye-roll. Because no, you don’t.
And every criticism and threat brings another odd ally to her side — ad agency Red, the “town midget” (Peter Dinklage), black co-workers and billboard posters.
It’s a less showy film than some of McDonagh’s other work, but there’s beauty in the Ozarks foothills, in the sideways glances Mildred aims at one and all, at the self-aware irritation reflected in her eyes in her station wagon’s rear view mirror.
And as topical and zeitgeisty as this picture purports to be, McDonagh makes sure he gets in his shots at the Catholic Church blended with story arcs laced with Biblical shots at redemption. Even the irredeemable have inner resources that might be tapped, souls worth saving.
And Mildred? McDormand (“Fargo”) stuns at every turn, never letting us feel a false moment as a vengeful harpy with a deep well of compassion, a guilt-ridden parent looking for closure.
There’s a Randy Newman song that perfectly describes Mildred’s actions. “I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do.” That ethos is the anchor of a great character in a film filled with them, the beating heart of one of the best pictures of 2017.
MPAA Rating:R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references
Cast: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, John Hawke
Credits:Written and directed by Martin McDonagh . A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 1:55