Middleburg Film Review: ‘Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is the Darkly Rich Movie We Could Only Dream


2017 MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL: It’s always nice to have a film blend the genres of black comedy and a hard-hitting drama successfully. You expect studios to attempt such a feat. What you don’t expect is an intelligent and absorbing story in which there isn’t a single moment that you don’t look away. That’s the perfect description to Martin McDonagh‘s “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.” A savagely amusing experience, McDonagh’s film maintains its comic balance, and after beats of jokes and humor, manages to get an emotional reaction from its viewers. Not sure we’ve seen anything like this in years.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri,” tells the story of Mildred (played by Frances McDormand), a mother who personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder with three gigantic billboards. Targeting Sherrif Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson) brings controversy around the town, in particular, the bumbling buffoonery of Officer Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell).

After McDonagh demanded our attention in the Oscar-nominated “In Bruges,” he’s maintained his vision and tone with his follow-up “Seven Psychopaths.” With “Three Billboards…,” he’s hit a whole new level. Invigorating filmmaking in nearly every way imaginable, McDonagh encompasses equal parts of engagement, humor, and enlightenment. It’s the gold standard of a terrific script paired with even better storytelling. The writer/director creates cinematic tension and makes it palpable.

Frances McDormand is as relevant today as she’s ever been to the culture of cinema. Her quirky interpretation of a grieving mother, paralyzed by the feeling of regret is one of her most auspicious turns, one that should land her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.  Her whipper-snapper attitude and monologues will be quotable to cinema-goers for years.

The standout of the film is the vivacious Sam Rockwell, you know, the man who’s been virtually ignored his entire career by awards bodies. Not only did Rockwell return from the brink of cinematic extinction, but he delivers one of, if not his most memorable and undeniable performances of his career. As the character is deceptively humorous and simultaneously vile, Rockwell balances the black comedy with the most consistent interpretation of a man just desperate to make something of himself. The Academy would be so lucky to include him among its 89-year history of acting winners.

Surprisingly moving and brilliant is Woody Harrelson. Almost seemingly channeling Morgan Freeman’s work in “The Shawshank Redemption,” Harrelson becomes a through-line for the audience to engage while then echoing Mahershala Ali’s work in “Moonlight.” It’s the ghost of the film that never leaves and ends up being one of the film’s undoubted highlights.

McDonagh gets, even more, brownie points when he sprinkles in Abbie Cornish, looking like she was plucked out of “Foxcatcher” as Sienna Miller’s spirit animal; Lucas Hedges, as the wisecracking and mournful son, and John Hawkes, as the slithering and enigmatic ex-husband.

The film also assembles a dynamite crafts team. As can be expected with every musical note he writes, Carter Burwell‘s score does more than just add tension; he downright reinvents it. Ben Davis‘ cinematography is as smooth as the editing that’s modeled by Jon Gregory.  Both are worthy of every citation it will receive throughout the season.

There are times you walk out of the film, realizing that the special and unmistakable nature of its execution has been felt. Often, you feel as though you must immediately see it again to see if what you felt is real. There’s more to take in on a second viewing I’m sure of it. We can only hope that it will live up to what was initially discovered. “Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri” is one of the year’s most dynamite films, aching to be embraced by any lover of the movies.

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures and opens in theaters on Nov. 10.

GRADE: (★)

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