Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn’t a Coen brothers picture, but it shares many sensibilities with that aesthetic, and I’m not just talking about Frances McDormand in a firecracker of a role. Three Billboards, the story of Mildred Hayes (McDormand), a small-town woman, on a quest for justice for her daughter, has been positioned as a crime drama, and it is, in a sense. It’s also something of a character study and a slice-of-life exercise.
This is Frances McDormand’s show, to be certain, and she’s predictably incredible at her job. The screen practically crackles when she delivers cutting lines and stares down would-be intimidating police officers (namely Sam Rockwell’s Barney Fife gone dark, Jason Dixon). But, where McDonagh’s vision lacks the relentless adrenaline other genre pictures might lean on, it embraces the gentle pace of small-town light and invites the viewer in to meet the locals. And my, my, if they aren’t worth pulling the eyes away from McDormand, if only for a few minutes.
In addition to Rockwell’s alarmingly inept Dixon, there’s Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby, he’s a good man, but he’s also the one put on blast by Mildred’s provocative billboards. Why? “Because the buck’s gotta stop somewhere.” That’s how Mildred puts it, and for his part, Willoughby seems to get it. But he still finds his hands more full than ever in the wake of the billboards. His staff is restless, Mildred’s a pariah and he’s still no closer to catching a rapist and murderer. It’s a gig nearly as nuanced as McDormand’s, but it only has a fraction as much fun in it. Meanwhile, Peter Dinklage is on hand to attempt to woo Mildred when romance is clearly the farthest thing from her mind. And young Lucas Hedges continues his streak of turning up to do good things in awards contenders. This time he’s Mildred’s son, and he’s caught in the middle, constantly.
This ensemble, and this rather twisty story, all benefit from McDonagh’s deft storytelling. He gives us narratives on multiple levels and though he denies us the very thing we most want, he finds other ways to bring something like a resolution to an unimaginable situation.
Come to Three Billboards to see Frances McDormand swear and stand down the law. Stay to see Frances McDormand swear and stand down the law. But also take notice of the tapestry that’s built around her — it’s engrossing enough to steal a bit of thunder from an absolutely exceptional role. And that’s saying something.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
Runtime: 1h 55m
Release Date: November 17, 2017 (expands)
Main Image Credit: Merrick Morton / Fox Searchlight