Review: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Quentin Tarantino is a talent unlike any other. Tarantino is best known for his screenplays, but what is specifically special about his writing is his ability to create stories with intertwining characters and situations that are fun to watch and a pleasure to analyze. In my preparation for Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri I decided to brush up and rewatch the only other two films from writer/director Martin McDonagh. In Bruges is always an enjoyable watch, but this time I was shocked by how brilliantly the plot is put together. I was surprised in the same way when I rewatched Seven Psychopaths. And now after seeing Three Billboards and becoming much-too engaged in the characters and their situations, I’m beginning to think that Tarantino might have found his match. Tarantino is one of the greats, so I understand this is a bold claim, but I believe that this third film from Martin McDonagh proves that his ability to tell intricate, character and situation-based original stories is of the same caliber as the Quentin Tarantino. If you’ve somehow never watched anything from McDonagh, change that as fast as you can.

Frances McDormand was made for this role

Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri tells the story of a mother seeking justice for the rape and murder of her daughter. Almost a year has passed since her daughter was found, and no arrests have been made, so Midred Hayes rents three billboards outside the small town of Ebbing, Missouri and uses them to call out the local police and police chief about their inactivity concerning the investigation. This creates a variety of responses around the town, both from the police department, the police chief, the members of the town who are especially fond of their chief, and from one specific officer on the force. As the story unfolds, we discover that each of the characters and their situations are far more complicated than we first thought.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri was an amazing film, and while about 90% of the credit for its quality is due to Martin McDonagh’s simply brilliant storywriting, I don’t want to overlook the fact that there are two simply outstanding performances in this film. The first comes from Frances McDormand, who plays Mildred, a role that McDonagh has stated he had McDormand in mind for when writing the screenplay. McDormand’s character is one whose brash personality is a defining characteristic that’s played for humor, but at the heart of her character is a tragedy which too many people are guilty of overlooking. The balance McDormand strikes between comedy and near-depression is strikingly powerful. The other performance to note is Sam Rockwell’s, who plays one of the police officers. In a film where every single character undergoes significant development, Rockwell’s has the most drastic one. The way which Rockwell portrays this with a helpless deidentification of himself is incredible, showing the maturation of boy into man through this side-character in a two-hour movie. Both McDormand and Rockwell are sure to receive Oscar nominations this year for these performances, and frankly, they couldn’t be more deserved.

Woody Harrelson doesn’t give us anything new, but his coarse lovableness is perfect for the role

What blows me away, though, is the fact that McDormand and Rockwell’s performances weren’t even close to being the most memorable part of the film. Instead, the thing that makes this movie as amazing as it is, is the screenplay. I could rant and rave for hours about the story McDonagh crafted, analyzing each and every character and how brilliantly staged every scene was. Three Billboards doesn’t quite achieve the same encapsulating situations which are almost comical in structure that In Bruges did, but that is a lofty film to be compared to. The situations in Three Billboards are brilliantly crafted and the scenes are almost flawlessly laid out so that by the end, you can hardly believe how perfectly this movie came together. I will say that there are certain elements of the plot which aren’t quite as justified as they could have been, which could serve to a critique that the film is overcomplicated and feels long. But once you get to the end of the film, none of that matters as every piece falls into place, reaching a conclusion that verges on emotional.

While situationally Three Billboards isn’t quite as perfect a film as In Bruges, its characters are far better than in either of McDonagh’s previous films. Indeed, this is the single best thing about Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. With Mildred Hayes, we get a complex mix of emotions that makes the audience feel guilty at the perfect times. With Chief Willoughby, we are given a conflicted character whose complicated nature directly challenges the audience’s opinions on certain political topics. And with Officer Dixon, McDonagh convinces the audience to make a judgement of character that no one would have made in a million years. With the introduction and development of his characters, the audience is putty in McDonagh’s hand, changing the way we look at people both inside and outside the film.

This is a hard character to play, and Sam Rockwell nails it

In my review of Lady Bird, I mentioned that I intend to study how Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan made such an impactful, and realistic character. I intend to do the same with all three of the leads in Three Billboards, but for a different reason. Unlike Lady Bird, these three characters are very fictional, and I believe McDonagh intends them to be. But that in no way stops them from being just as memorable and powerful as Lady Bird or nearly any other character ever put to the screen; on the contrary, it’s a testament to the versatility of quality storytelling.

This review is already getting kind of long, so I will conclude simply by saying that first with In Bruges, second with Seven Psychopaths, and now with Three Billboards, Martin McDonagh has proved he’s one of the best storytellers alive today.

I give Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri an 8.6/10.

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