Three Billboards Outside Ebbing – 4.5 stars

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Martin McDonagh’s previous films (In Bruges, Seven Psycopaths) are literate, high-wire act joys, runaway teams of horses where the director grabs the reins and brings everything in line for a final, dizzying and absurdist crescendo. Those movies centered on the outrageous machinations of the comical criminal underworld and, in the case of the latter film, the even more bizarre milieu of Hollywood screenwriting.

Three Billboards is set in a nondescript Missouri town, and while McDonagh presents off kilter characters, these are still purportedly regular folks: a mother grieving over the rape and murder of her daughter (Frances McDormand), a police chief dying of cancer (Woody Harrelson), and his emotionally stunted, racist deputy (Sam Rockwell). McDormand shakes up the town when she pays for space on three billboards excoriating the police for its failure to solve her daughter’s murder.

McDonagh intersperses the ridiculous with the truly touching. McDormand and Rockwell are nothing short of walking pipe bombs. Yet, the film has its gentle moments, and is punctuated by beautiful, personal vignettes that really sink deep.

I’ll recount one such moment. Harrelson is interrogating McDormand for her assault on a fellow citizen and as they thrust and parry, he accidentally coughs up blood in her face. She is a tough customer but her immediate reaction is so reflexively soothing, we get a glimpse of the woman who existed before her daughter’s death. It’s one of the most moving moments I’ve ever seen in a picture, and the film is filled with similar little touches, of Harrelson with his daughters, Rockwell with his doting mother, McDormand’s would-be beau (Peter Dinklage) as he struggles to get past her armor.

There are a few problems. A scene where McDormand harangues a priest over the Church’s molestation scandal is overwritten, and the fun had at the expense of her ex-husband’s 19 year old ditz of a girlfriend is too easy and over the top (she confuses polo with polio). The picture also loses its steam at the end in what felt like a contrived attempt at wrapping up. McDonagh fails to get all the reins in hand.

But the performances are splendid and the characters resonant. Simply watching McDormand negotiating her day is heart rending. I look forward to her best actress win tonight.

I was also struck by McDonagh’s ease in handling multi-faceted characters. They all exhibit terrible qualities, running the gamut from rank racism to brutality to reckless cruelty, but they also have truly human moments that suggest depth and nuance. That’s in short supply in film and sadly, real life, where everyone is so hellbent on burning scarlet letters on other folks at the drop of a hat.

Case in point.

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