‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ Is A Rural, Podunk Masterpiece

As it turns out, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will be my last dispatch from the Toronto International Film Festival and I waited the longest to write about this movie because it’s the film that I wanted the most time to think about. I wanted it to fully set in. There’s a lot going on in Martin McDonagh’s third movie (following in Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) – and as a native Missourian myself, frankly, there’s a lot going on for me in this film. And not only is it my favorite movie I saw in Toronto, right now it’s my favorite film of 2017.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a woman living in a small, hick town (as someone who grew up in a hick Missouri town, I’m allowed to say that, at least I think I am?) located in, what I assume is, from the accents, in the southern half of the state. Seven months earlier, Mildred’s daughter, Angela, was raped and then set on fire while walking to a party on the outskirts of town. Seven long months later and the town sheriff, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), has yet to have any solid leads, let alone actually make an arrest.

Frustrated to no end – she’s certainly not getting any help from her ex-husband (John Hawkes), who now just seems to only be interested in dating teenagers – Mildred pays to advertise on three billboards near the location of her daughter’s murder, publicly asking why Sheriff Willoughby has yet to make an arrest. This action infuriates the sheriff’s office, setting off a battle of wills between Mildred and Sheriff Willoughby.

The relationship between Mildred and Willoughby is fascinating. Bill Willoughby isn’t a run-of-the-mill local yokel – Sam Rockwell’s Officer James Dixon fills that role; we’ll get to him in a bit – Bill Willoughby is presented, at first, as a tough-as-nails customer. But as the film goes on, we start to see a different side to him. The people of Ebbing turn on Mildred, because Bill is dying from cancer and they can’t understand why Mildred would want to put more pressure on a sick man. When Bill asks Mildred why she used his name on the billboard, it’s only because he’s the person in charge; it’s not personal between these two. They actually seem to somewhat like each other – but the circumstances pit them against each other as enemies.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Frances McDormand’s best role since playing Marge Gunderson back in 1996’s Fargo. McDormand is longtime Coen brothers’ favorite (not to mention being married to Joel Coen), so it’s kind of funny that she’s the star of a film in which Martin McDonagh’s does everything he can to summon the spirit of the Coens. And if you’re aiming for a Coens-type film, well, yes, you might as well hire the best actors they use. But McDormand just owns this movie in a way that’s both ferocious and empathetic. This is not as much a movie about revenge as justice, but a little revenge against the people standing in her way never hurt anyone. (This movie produced my only audible gasp of the entire Toronto International Film Festival; it involves a scene with a dental drill but does not involve a tooth.)

And then there’s Sam Rockwell’s Officer James Dixon. Now here’s a tricky character. He kind of reminded me a little bit of Russell Crowe’s Bud White from L.A. Confidential: he’s a similar brute, but only dumber, racist, and even more prone to unprompted violence. He’s despicable. But as the movie progresses (and following a major incident I won’t spoil), Dixon starts to at least try to learn how to be a better person. This happened to Bud White, too. But just when you think you’ve got Dixon’s character figured out, you don’t. And just when you think you know what Dixon’s possible redemption might be, you don’t know that either. (Also: We take Sam Rockwell for granted. He’s one of our greatest actors working today.) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not a movie you’ll be able to figure out. I was aghast at a plot development at least three times. (And as an aside, the character of Dixon’s mother is probably the most “Missouri” character I’ve ever seen on film. As a child, I knew many, many people like her.)

Martin McDonagh was a playwright before winning an Oscar for his first directorial effort, a short film titled “Six Shooter.” He then received mass acclaim for his first feature film, In Bruges. But Seven Psychopaths was a step back. It’s like McDonagh let all of the praise about his “witty dialogue” control his worst instincts. With that film, he was more concerned with being clever than he was with the actual story or the characters. After Seven Psychopaths, I would have never guessed McDonagh had something like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri inside of him. Yes, the dialogue is witty (sometimes so much that I started to get worried, but on every occasion he starts to go to far, he pulls it back just in time), but never lets himself get out of control. It’s here that we find a McDonagh who is actually reserved at times, and has learned how not to get in the way of his own scene – to just let the scene breathe and build organically. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is true growth for McDonagh. He’s made himself his own little masterpiece.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a mystery that’s not really searching for true answers. Instead, the characters are all searching for something inside themselves. It’s not about retribution, even though retribution is certainly sought. This is a film less about answers than it is a movie about more questions. There’s nothing tidy about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but we do see growth, in more ways than one. We see characters try to grow as human beings as they try to understand one another. And we see a filmmaker who has now grown into an auteur who can make something as fascinating, remarkable, and just plain great as this.

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