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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

(2017) *** 1/2 R
115 min. Fox Searchlight. Director: Martin McDonagh. Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell.

/content/films/5097/1.jpgAs the “stakes” rise during Oscar season, shots fire from different camps toward the top contenders. While The Shape of Water earned the most Golden Globe nominations (plus a “Best Director” win) and, subsequently, the most Oscar nominations by a wide margin, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s Globe wins for “Best Motion Picture – Drama,” “Best Screenplay,” “Best Actress – Drama” and “Best Supporting Actor – Drama” suggested at the time frontrunner status for Martin McDonagh’s film.

In direct proportion to its visibility, Billboards has proven increasingly controversial and divisive, and not without good reason. Despite its vehicle of bestiality, Guillermo Del Toro’s Water has yet to stoke noticeable anger from its otherwise tasteful Cold War fable of loving compassion amidst self-serving zealotry, but Billboards traffics in the institutional failures plaguing American police departments and their communities, making pointed reference to the injustices suffered by black citizens. If the horror-loving Del Toro taps the brakes a bit with Water, the profane playwright-screenwriter-director McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) floors his own sensibility, with exhilarating and reckless results.

Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, the soul-scarred mother of a teenage girl raped and murdered seven months before the film begins. Roiling with righteous fury, Mildred hatches a plan to push for justice in the unsolved case: she pays for three billboards shaming the Ebbing, Missouri police department. Proceeding from this turn-up-the-pressure premise—suggestive of the communal sensibilities and satire within Ancient Greek plays—McDonagh positions himself to observe every pipe burst around the fictional small town (its ironic name suggesting the ebbing of the American empire and, with it, its moral authority).

In its most simple terms, Three Billboards is fascinated by what happens when raw emotion and intellect overcome reason. McDormand’s unstoppable force meets movable object after movable object in an insatiable quest for satisfaction, and the actor’s heat-vision performance is pure perfection, squeezing every bit of pulp from the dialogue in ways that honor the character’s humanity and each situation’s black comedy. But McDonagh also determinedly sets up expectations about archetypal characters and then undermines them.

The approach first manifests when Mildred squares off with Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), and we discover that he’s not easily dismissible as incompetent or uncaring. Bothersomely, he’s also an object example of that old chestnut “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about,” which Mildred must acknowledge but deem irrelevant to her own cause. A less personal but not insignificant problem facing Willoughby is dimwitted Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who has a rep for torturing black suspects. He, too, will turn out to be a more rounded character than he first appears, becoming more centered, smart, capable, and generous of spirit than he would at first appear.

The evolution of Dixon’s character turns out to be one bridge too far for the film. McDonagh’s admirable shading of ostensible heroes and villains backfires as character inconsistency in this case, despite Rockwell’s witty and charismatic performance (it doesn't help that McDonagh treats race relations as a remote metaphor at best and passing device at worst). Nevertheless, Three Billboards wickedly entertains and provokes, partly with shocking violence and political incorrectness, and partly in reckoning with the emotions behind America’s civil violence. In McDonagh’s world, we’re all victims, and it’s the rare victim who doesn’t seek restitution by becoming a perp.

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