Director: Martin McDonagh.
Cast: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Željko Ivanek, Samara Weaving, Brendan Sexton III.
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Sure, he's only delivered two films prior to now - the modern cult classic In Bruges and the too-clever but great fun of Seven Psychopaths - but they're a good foundation, demonstrating an incredible mind for scriptwriting and an understated way of bringing those scripts to the screen . And when you add his best film to date on top, you have the makings of a great writer-director.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a masterclass in screenwriting, acting, and directing. It is overflowing with great characters, brought to life beautifully by a stellar cast, and has a strong thematic and emotional core, while still being wickedly and darkly funny.
The somewhat unconventional story kicks off with Mildred Hayes (McDormand) hiring three billboards near her house to post a message questioning why the local police haven't caught her daughter's killer and rapist. The billboards set in motion a chain of unpredictable events that will affect everyone in the small town of Ebbing.
At its heart Three Billboards is about what death leaves behind, and the lasting impacts of violence. The most poignant quote in the film, and the one that sums it up the best, is simply "violence begets violence". While the expression of this idea is typically played for laughs due to McDonagh's dark wit, it's nonetheless a great theme explored in fascinating ways. Every violent act in the film - and there are a few - has interesting and unexpected repercussions, some good, some bad, with most of them spurring further violence in an escalating chain of savagery and stupidity.
Through it all, McDonagh's skill for black comedy is at the fore, softening the harshness of some of the content and packing a punch in other places. But none of it would work without a killer cast, and luckily he has that.
Lead actor McDormand is everything in this - she's a stoic, take-no-crap firecracker of a grieving mother whose sorrow and anger manifest in unexpected ways. It's a wonderful, award-worthy performance and up there with her Oscar-winning turn in Fargo as among the best in her career.
She's ably supported by Rockwell as a racist, dimwitted cop who has the most fascinating arc of any character in the film. Harrelson's too-brief appearance is a joy to behold, whether he be chuckling at everything that's going on, or dealing with his own dark truths. Elsewhere, Dinklage and Hawkes are good in small but well rounded roles - McDonagh's script makes sure to give almost every character a little story to intertwine in the bigger one.
It also tells its story in interesting ways. The opening five minutes should be shown in screenwriting class, and while its ending will bother some, it comes at exactly the right point before the film wears out its welcome. Its also going to leave you thinking.
There's little to fault here. While its not flashy or stylised, Three Billboards features good, solid direction of an auteur in full control of his storytelling powers and equipped with the perfect cast to tell his tale.