THIS VERY FUNNY, very black comedy has some of the sharpest, smartest writing of the year. Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directs also wrote In Bruges as well the outstanding play, The Pillowman. Writing of this caliber must be a joy for actors to work with: they don’t have to invent characters around the script, they simply have to give it life. And the three key actors giving it life – Frances McDormand as the determined, embittered, devil may care Mildred, Woody Harrelson as Willoughby, the stoic sheriff, resigned to his own insignificance in solving a horrific crime, and Sam Rockwell as Dixon, the racist, momma’s boy deputy, as thick as a brick – are all at the top of their game.
The act that sets off a train of events (not to mention the title of the movie) is Mildred’s rental of (said) three billboards outside Ebbing. The billboards shout her frustration with the sheriff’s incompetent pursuit of the rapist/murderer who killed her daughter. All her sorrow and anger is vented on these billboards. It is this catharsis of blame…this need to point a finger, to assign guilt that clouds the brain and makes the search for truth impossible.
The characters in the story are all casters of the first stone. People who are far from blameless blame everyone else for deeds done or perceived to have been done. Just as Mildred blames the sheriff for the failure to hunt down her daughter’s killer, Dixon blames every black person around for being black as well as the billboard owner for simply renting the billboards. Willoughby’s wife, Anne (Abby Cornish) blames Mildred for unjustifiably hounding her husband and on and on. But, as the movie shows, the blame game has a nasty way of taking on a life of its own. Passions are set loose from their moorings of reason; people are burned, thrown out of buildings, one drops dead. This is an out of control beast, controlled only, perhaps, by the revelations only the truth can offer and by the cleansing of forgiveness and empathy.
What with Get Out, the (overlooked) Death of Stalin and The Party, these last few months have seen the return of great black comedy to the screen. And as with all great black comedy from Joe Orton on, the characters and the twists in the plot are racheted up to the wildest extremes. The genius in McDormand and Rockwell’s indelibly iconic characters is that they remain fully fleshed and convincingly believable. In lesser hands, it would have been so easy to slip into caricature.
And the genius in McDonagh’s writing and directing is that the comedic excesses (told at a breath taking pace) are always in service to his deeply insightful (and so very apposite) idea about the need for the clarity of understanding in the obscuring fog of passions and blame.
After the much ballyhooed and entirely undeserving success of La La Land last year, here, at last is a movie thoroughly deserving of its much-garlanded praise.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. Dir. and written by Martin McDonagh. With: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage. Director of Photography: Ben Davis (Dr. Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy)