All hail Frances McDormand. Meryl may be the reigning tour-de-force of modern day actresses, but Frances deserves to be mentioned if in not the same breath, but at least the same sentence. Case in point: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (a title that writers with a word count to hit absolutely adore). In a tale about a grieving mother wanting justice for her raped and murdered daughter, McDormand straddles the line between crazy and endearing perfectly, making you wonder if she’s always been a little off her rocker or if tragic events made her this way. She’s not the only one to give a killer performance here however.Three Billboards is elevated above what it is by its three leads, McDormand, Rockwell, and Harrelson. The result is something memorable, even if it falls a little short of remarkable.
The script by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) blurs the line between drama and black comedy, with the situation punctuated by moments of sheer absurdity. This film goes from heartfelt revelations about people trying to come to terms with themselves to midget jokes on the turn of a dime (little person jokes seem to be a McDonagh staple, for better or worse). Some of these moments work, others not so much, and as a result the tone of the film can be a bit all over the place. But despite the dark subject matter, it’s not that dark of a film, instead choosing to go a little over the top in how it handles grief and various other hot topic issues (racism, police brutality, the plight of the working class) in present day society. Frame it in a small town where everyone is up in everyone else’s business and all of these issues play out front and center.
I don’t want to compare Three Billboards that much to In Bruges, but the later does make for a good point of reference. As both are dark films, lightened up by often hilarious moments of sheer absurdity, they are more akin than not. However, these offbeat moments usually involve what polite society would consider horrific violence. It works better in In Bruges considering the stark contrast to its idyllic setting. In Three Billboards, a scene of someone getting pushed out of a window just seems overly violent and a little out of place. In Bruges felt like a fantasy world, whereas the events in Three Billboards could happen in reality, so some of the more off color moments felt a little out of place.
While the script and tone are a little uneven, where Three Billboards really shines is in its performances. The aforementioned Frances McDormand has ben racking up awards for this performance, and for good reason. But a film cannot rely on its lead alone, and thankfully the supporting cast more than pull their weight. Sam Rockwell in particular does and outstanding job as a kind of racist, kind of dumb hot headed small town cop. Even though the conclusion of his character arc feels a bit forced, Rockwell plays the part perfectly. I’ve always been a fan of his (his portrayal of Zaphod Beeblebrox in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one for the ages), and it’s nice to see him get the recognition he has always deserved.
Three Billboards is a bit twisted, and, at its core, it is very heartfelt. The same story in less capable hands could have turned out a lot worse, but all of the pieces fall into place here to raise it to something that’s at least worth two hours of your time. Is it best picture material? Normally I would say no, but this year, maybe, if for nothing else than the acting master class on display. Not to mention the interesting take on the grieving process. Recommended.