Martin McDonagh’s first film as a writer/director was In Bruges, which quickly became (and remains) a cult classic. McDonagh has spent the nine years since largely squandering that street cred, making only one film, 2012’s lackluster Seven Psychopaths, in the intervening time.
It therefore comes as quite a surprise that McDonagh would turn out a film like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a curious and enjoyable dark comedy, black as night, with legit Oscar aspirations.
Bless McDonagh’s trailer cutter for keeping most of the plot of this minor masterpiece in check. The previews largely focus on the first five minutes of the movie, which run as follows: A decidedly depressive woman named Mildred (Frances McDormand) is mourning the grisly death of her daughter — raped and burned to death just down the road from her small town house seven months prior. Angry that the police have still not found the killer, she takes matters into her own hands, renting three billboards on the very ground where her daughter was murdered, turning them into a cry to the heavens — or whomever will listen — for justice, specifically calling out the chief of police, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
Naturally this leads to considerable angst in this tiny burg, with various people taking either side: Don’t rock the boat, or demand an arrest. At the center of this is a troubled punk of a police officer, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), whose redemption tracks alongside Mildred’s own.
Three Billboards is a real surprise of a movie, as none of that basic plot description really hints at the machinations McDonagh has in store for the 115 minutes to come. While I wouldn’t dare describe its plot points as “twists,” the story definitely keeps you guessing, often predicting entirely wrongly how things are going to pan out. In a year in which so many prestige films are completely predictable — Lady Bird, The Shape of Water — Three Billboards is a breath of disturbed air.
Of course, this is also an actors’ showcase, with blue chip talent out in full force from start to finish. It would be criminal to deny McDormand an Oscar nomination for her conflicted, soul-searching performance, though similar chatter for Rockwell’s supporting role might be overblown, his character a bit too overplayed, writ impossibly large.
The only real problem with Three Billboards (despite an almost absurdly pretentious title) is how lazy certain elements of the production are, elements that, if they’d corrected, would have made the film even better than it is. Why does the burned earth — still visible months later — look like black spray paint on grass? Why are key characters named both Willoughby and Welby? Why does Mildred wear the same pair of blue coveralls for the entire film? And why oh why was the Australian Abbie Cornish (35) cast as the posh wife of small-town Woody Harrelson (56)? There’s a certain laziness to the production that continually pulls you out of the otherwise immersive story, reminding you that, in the end, it’s just a movie.
Which, given the darkness of its tale, is perhaps for the best.