Combustible Celluloid
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With: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Kathryn Newton, Lucas Hedges, Samara Weaving, Amanda Warren, Clarke Peters
Written by: Martin McDonagh
Directed by: Martin McDonagh
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references
Running Time: 115
Date: 11/10/2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Negative Space

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

So sharply written that it cuts, this third movie by the award-winning playwright Martin McDonagh is a comedy-drama that starts with cleverness and wit, then opens up into something truthfully human.

In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is understandably grieving and angry a year after her daughter was raped and murdered, and the perpetrator was never found. While driving a lonely stretch of road, she spots three unused billboards. She rents them and puts up a message for the local police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), calling him out for his failure.

Her act does not sit well with her fellow citizens, especially the dim-bulb officer police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). She finds herself and her friends threatened on several occasions, especially when someone tries to burn down her billboards. Meanwhile, Willoughby is guarding his own terrible secret. Then, it's none other than Dixon who steps up, inspired by Willoughby, and tries to help.

The aptly-titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri features superb, lyrical dialogue so good that every single cast member, no matter how little screen time, gives a superb performance. McDormand in particular hasn't been this good since her Oscar-winning turn in Fargo (1996). Yet Three Billboards never seems too clever for its own good. It's a stronger effort than McDonagh's In Bruges (2008) or Seven Psychopaths (2012); beneath the sparkling verbiage lay genuine, complex emotions.

There is hope here, and love, but also hate, rage, and grief, just like life. These things are all mixed up in a most bracing way. At the same time, the movie takes on things like murder, cancer, and racism, but never in any way that might seem obvious or pandering. It's not a movie about suspense or solutions; things are deliberately messy in this world, even if McDonagh presents them in a pin-neat manner.

Blessed with pitch-perfect cinematography and production design, there are many great scenes in this movie, and no bad ones, but nothing quite prepares you for the final scene, a thoughtful, human moment that should resonate for some time.

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