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07 Dec 2017

A Rare Masterpiece: Martin McDonagh's 'Three Billboards' Features a Once-in-a-Decade Performance from Frances McDormand

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Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the third feature film by writer-director Martin McDonagh.

It’s also his third masterpiece.

Three Billboards also marks another astonishing film achievement for Frances McDormand, who will drill into your chest cavity and do all kinds of crazy shit to your heart as Mildred, a justifiably pissed-off mother who has a few issues with the cops in her town.

It’s been five years since Mildred’s young daughter was raped, killed and burned by unknown murderers. Mildred, who isn’t even close to getting over the tragedy, spies some old, dilapidated billboards on the way home and gets an idea. After meeting with a sloppy advertising agent (Caleb Landry Jones), some guys are commissioned to put alarmingly provocative signs on those billboards.

Those signs call out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a well-meaning but emotional man who, for various reasons, is not on his best game. He challenges Mildred, claiming the billboards aren’t fair. Her retort: In the time you took to come down here and piss and moan about the billboards, another girl could’ve been butchered.

There’s no better actress to portray Mildred—with her steadfast, emotionally raw determination—than McDormand. More than two decades ago, McDormand took home the Oscar for playing Marge Gunderson in Fargo—playing one of the nicest law-enforcement individuals the movies have ever seen. Mildred is the opposite of Marge: Kindness and hugs and Arby’s aren’t big on her mind. She wants her daughter’s killers brought to justice, and she’ll burn buildings down with people inside them to get the investigation going.

Yet somehow, Mildred is just as likable and worth rooting for as Marge. That’s because McDormand is a fearless master, and she’s a shoo-in for another Oscar nomination—at the least. Mildred says and does things in this movie that will leave your jaw hanging open, and McDormand makes all of these extremes believable and almost reasonable. There’s so much happening behind those piercing eyes. It’s the kind of performance that only comes around once a decade.

What takes this film to masterpiece levels, beyond the technical brilliance that McDonagh always delivers, is that McDormand is joined by a cast that hits every note. Harrelson caps a great year as the lawman. John Hawkes is memorably nasty as Mildred’s abusive ex-husband, while Jones manages many surprises as the billboard man, and Peter Dinklage makes the most of a few scenes as a town local with eyes for Mildred.

Oh, and there’s yet another Oscar-caliber performance from Sam Rockwell (who starred in McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths) as racist, momma’s-boy deputy Dixon. There aren’t too many character actors alive who could make Dixon frightening, sympathetic, funny, disgusting and worthy of redemption all at once. Dixon, the town drunk and racist homophobe who has a thing for throwing people out of windows, undergoes a transformation that is some kind of movie miracle. That’s because Rockwell, like McDormand, is one of the best.

That’s also because McDonagh knows how to write a script that keeps you in it with every line. While the film is, in part, a murder mystery, the crime takes a back seat to watching these folks play off of each other. There are scenes in this movie that will emotionally knock you on the floor. There’s one particular moment that is so heartbreaking, and so shocking, it’s a wonder anybody managed to get it on screen.

The year isn’t over yet, but it’s a fair bet to say this one is going to be topping a lot of award lists, adding to McDormand’s legacy and giving Rockwell the sort of high profile recognition he’s always deserved. As for McDonagh, not many directors have come out of the gate with three masterpieces in a row. He’s in an elite class of filmmakers—and he’s just getting started.

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, is playing at theaters across the valley.

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