Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Award season begins strong, a movie that is surprisingly funny, tragic, subtle, deep and ambiguous.

Seven months after her daughter was brutally murdered, an angry and grieving mother takes matters into her own hands and advertises the local police department’s negligence in catching her killer on three huge roadside billboards. However, does she appreciate how the vigilant but rebellious act will affect the people of the small town?

This film is utterly loaded in emotions; what could easily have been an incredibly dour and sad experience twists with a wicked sense of humour and fabulous performances across the board, especially the magnetic Frances McDormand (Hail, Caesar!) in the lead role. Audiences will be thrown around in an emotional rollercoaster as the film makes them cry, laugh and feel chills within moments of each other.
But, it isn’t full of unnatural transitions or segways between these things. Director Martin Donagh, who directed the hugely underrated Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges, (underrated by this reviewer) makes a film that is both subtle and aggressively emotional. The film sets it tone early, with McDormand’s Mildred driving past the three abandoned billboards that would become the focus of the movie. Such a quiet scene for such a simple premise, but what happens afterwards is surprising and fascinating.
The film’s strongest aspect, of many, is its characters. It is adamant to show people from different perspectives, how the ugliest of people can be noble, and how good intentions spark actions that have terrible consequences. It is a complex movie in a small package, taking place in the small town and the people in it; the advertising agency, the police department and… the local colour.
And is it wickedly funny when it wants to be. If you aren’t a fan of strong language, you might want to back out; nearly all of the zingers and jokes here are due to Mildred’s blunt but stinging accuracy of put-downs. One can only imagine some ridiculous outtakes and on-set laughter between takes. Woody Harrelson (War for the Planet of the Apes) and Frances McDormand have awesome chemistry as two adversarial individuals who still respect one another, while Sam Rockwell (Moon) positively disappears into the character of Jason Dixon, one of the worst police officers imaginable. There’s incredible writing to enjoy in Three Billboards.

But at the same time, the film shows its tragic and dramatic chops. It isn’t a slow or sudden slide into depression after a giddy first act, it balances both when things start to get heavy remarkably well. With a few sudden and horrific events occurring, surely to shake every audience up, the characters still manage to find confidence and strength and even light afterwards. Furthering the three dimensional writing the characters have been given. No one is a saint, but few are truly evil.

It is a story of brutal black comedy, genuine family sentimentality, heart-wrenching tragedy and great three dimensional writing. It is worthy of its critical praise. Go see it for McDormand’s acidic foul mouth, stay for the involved character depth.

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Additional marshmallows: I did find myself leaving the cinema feeling a little deflated though, it is a loaded movie full of emotional twists and turns. But altogether it was a great experience with terrifically talented people behind it.

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