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Signs of the times - 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

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Stories of loss are difficult to tell. Finding ways to convey the notion of grief without succumbing to sentimentality or devolving into the maudlin – particularly on-screen – can prove trying to even the most accomplished filmmaker.

Which is a big reason why writer/director Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is such a visceral gutpunch of a film; in his hands, it doesn’t seem difficult at all. Even as we watch people fall prey to the various pitfalls inherent to grief and grieving, McDonagh’s combination of visual acuity, empathetic understanding and dark humor keeps us enthralled. These people and this story are made relatable without sacrificing what makes them interesting.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, “Hail, Caesar!”) is a divorced mother living in the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. Seven months ago, her life was upended and torn asunder by the brutal murder of her daughter Angela. Furious with the lack of progress in the investigation into her daughter’s death, Mildred takes it upon herself to rent three long-disused billboards on an isolated stretch of road; she uses them to convey the following: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

As one might imagine, this causes some consternation among the Ebbing law enforcement community. Some – like Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, “The Glass Castle”) himself – try to empathize with Mildred’s pain and attempt to reason with her. Others – like hotheaded officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, TV’s “F Is for Family”) – just want to figure out a way to arrest her and make it stop.

The town is fiercely divided; everyone from Mildred’s depressed son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, “Lady Bird”) to Willoghby’s loving wife Anne (Abbie Cornish, “Geostorm”), from advertising salesman Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones, “American Made”) to Mildred’s erstwhile love interest James (Peter Dinklage, TV’s “Game of Thrones”) … they’re all impacted in some way, large or small.

But as the billboards stay up and more attention is drawn to them, the insecurities and secrets of the people of Ebbing begin to creep to the surface. They become a symbol – positive to some, negative to others – and Mildred finds herself at the center of a firestorm that she never really asked for. All she really asked, in the end, was for someone to help her find closure with regards to the loss of her daughter.

Alas, closure isn’t always so easy to find.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is bleak and honest, riddled with moments of genuine pain and pitch-black humor. It strikes a leisurely pace without ever once feeling slow, allowing the narrative to reveal itself gradually. That pacing is what allows the high points – and there are MANY high points – to land with maximum impact without coming off as disingenuous or forced.

What the film does – and what McDonagh’s work does in general – is create people who feel real even when surrounded by outsized circumstances. These are character studies that are vivid and intimate in their complexity; there’s a truthfulness that permeates every single resident of Ebbing. Even those who only briefly pass through the frame are somehow THERE in a way that you hardly ever see at the movies. There’s an honesty at work here that is incredibly compelling. It’s the sort of film that is unafraid to make you laugh even as it reaches into your chest and pulls out your heart. Again, not easy to do – but McDonagh has a gift.

Granted, it’s a lot easier to take advantage of such a gift when you assemble a wildly talented cast to help in its execution. Frances McDormand is a phenomenal talent, albeit one who has been as criminally underutilized and underrated as any actress of her generation. And she might be better in this role than she has ever been before. Her take on Mildred is utterly engaging in its rawness; she’s all sharp edges and anger and hurt, a shell protecting a vulnerable and nearly broken soul. She captures the many contradictions of grief flawlessly.

Among the uniformly excellent ensemble cast, the standout of standouts is Sam Rockwell. Jason Dixon is a sad, deeply flawed man, one who can’t see beyond his own biases and find anything resembling actual empathy. It’s a bold and furious performance, one well-deserving of all the attention it’s sure to receive. Harrelson turns his usual bombast on its ear, finding a well of quiet reserve from which to fuel Chief Willoughby; there are big moments, but there’s an interiority that we don’t often see from Harrelson – smart and subtle and compelling as hell.

Hedges is an ascending talent; it seems like he appears in just about every movie that generates awards buzz. There’s good reason for that – he’s great. He puts his usual excellence on display here, capturing the essence of a kid dealing with both literal (his sister) and figurative (his mom) loss. Dinklage steals a couple of scenes as a local used car dealer who wants nothing more than to court Mildred. Jones and Cornish also provide real substantive performances despite relatively limited screen time.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is going to deserve every plaudit it receives over the next few weeks. It is a heartbreaking journey, one that follows a woman as she desperately seeks the closure for which she yearns. It’s a story that understands that sometimes, desperate and irrational actions are the only ones that make any sense to take.

[5 out of 5] 

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