After her daughter is raped and killed, a mother in a small town puts up three billboards asking the police department why they haven’t found the killer.
I have enjoyed Martin McDonagh’s films (“In Bruges”, “Seven Psychopaths”). I think McDonagh has an incredibly unique voice, and he tells stories that no one else really can. I remember reading a review for one of McDonagh’s films a while back, and whoever wrote that review called McDonagh “delightfully un-politically correct”, and that’s a perfect way to describe his films. The characters populating his films are frequently lowlifes or thugs, the situations they find themselves in can be uncomfortable, but the emotions that McDonagh is able to wring from these situations is pretty incredible. There are scenes in all of his films where I laugh hysterically, but there are also scenes in this film and in “In Bruges” that have made me cry. McDonagh knows how to play with your emotions and get you to really care about characters and situations you otherwise wouldn’t have, and never has that been more on display than in this film. When this film came out in 2017, it was actually my pick for Best Original Screenplay, and while it lost that award to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”, I honestly think this film might still deserve the title a bit more; this script is just so tight and nuanced.
“Those billboards aren’t gonna bring her back, Mildred.”
Months after her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton, “Pokemon Detective Pikachu”) was raped and murdered, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, “Fargo”) is still without answers as to what happened or why. Desperate for answers, Mildred approaches Red Welby (Caleby Landry Jones, “Heaven Knows What”), an advertising man, and asks him to put up an advertisement on three billboards outside of town asking Ebbing police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, “No Country for Old Men”) why no one has yet been arrested. The whole town knows Willoughby is dying from cancer, however, and they’d prefer it if Mildred took down the billboards and just grieved quietly. Tensions rise and Mildred finds herself at odds with almost everyone, from the disgraced Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, “Vice”), to her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”), to Father Montgomery (Nick Searcy, “The Shape of Water”). All of the townsfolk wish Angela’s murder was solvable, but there isn’t enough evidence to move forward. Mildred and the police force stand two opposed forces on the battleground of Ebbing, Missouri. What could happen is anybody’s guess.
I think what I like best about this movie is the sheer unconventionality and originality that went into crafting the story. I can safely say I have never before seen a film about a billboard dispute in a small town. Really, this is a film about a small town where everyone knows everybody, and everything about their business; the subtle character development and relationships changes are more important than the events that happen. It’s also the characters that give this town such a rich feeling. The public’s perception of Mildred also becomes a character (just like how mob mentality becomes a character in Fritz Lang’s “M”); we get glimpses of how the town feels from her interactions with her friend Denise (Amanda Warren, “Mother!”), with her son (Lucas Hedges, “Ben is Back”), the town midget (Peter Dinklage, “Living in Oblivion”) and even Willoughby’s wife Anne (Abbie Cornish, “Limitless”). Building up this town with its diverse populous gives us a town that feels wholly unique, and while not all the characters are given enough room to grow, I would say probably 90% of the characters in this film show some sort of growth over the course of this film. That, in my opinion, is quite impressive; to establish an entire town and, without going completely off the rails, change every character in that town in some way.
Taking the writing and directing a step further; there are a lot of moments in this film that play with the viewer’s prior expectations, as well as moments that shift drastically from terrifying to humorous. One instance of this is when Officer Dixon takes out his gun and walks up the stairs to Red Welby’s advertising office; the camera stays on the gun while he walks up the stairs, so we as the viewers make the assumption that Dixon is about to shoot Red, however, at the last moment, Dixon spins his gun and pistol-whips Red instead of shooting him. There’s another moment where McDonagh uses this same camera trick to play with expectations when Mildred picks up a bottle of wine. From the context of the scene and the way it was shot, it looks as if she’s going to bash someone over the head with it, but instead she drops it off for someone else to drink. The misdirection is simply marvelous.
Acting is another thing that was absolutely astounding in this film. Both Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell won Oscars for their performances (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor), and Woody Harrelson was also nominated for his Supporting Role. This is a film about people and high-strung emotional situations, so the acting needed to be top notch in order to sell what was really happening. Again, the acting wouldn’t be much without the writing and directing; the emotion comes first from the story and then from the actors. But this film is filled with absolutely heart-wrenching drama, and Frances McDormand in particular does an amazing job of selling those scenes. Sam Rockwell probably won for his more comedic moments in the film; he’s quite hysterical as Dixon, but his character also shows a ton of growth by the end of the movie, and Rockwell does a great job of showcasing that.
This is a great movie. I’ve seen this film three times now and each time it’s struck me as more impressive. At this point, I’d be hard pressed to say if I like “In Bruges” or this film more. While I think “In Bruges” has some funnier moments and a more exciting conclusion, overall I think this film has more compelling characters, a more unique script, and it really showcases the compassionate side of McDonagh. All of the director’s films have been worth watching, and I cannot wait to see what comes next.
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