By Justin Secor
There is no such thing as Ebbing, Missouri. Trying to find it on a map is an impossible task. The action of the film, though based in some sort of reality, is entirely fictional. It’s shown as a projection on a screen in a movie theatre, a place where people go to escape reality. Therefore, there are multiple departures from reality in a film of Shakespearean heights and larger-than-life emotions. However, the film is so tangible and meaningful that it draws you in, and brings you back to reality.
This is the effect of Martin McDonagh’s new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. It’s about a woman named Mildred Hayes (McDormand), whose daughter was raped and burned to death and never got justice for her murder. Hayes blames this on the Ebbing police department, a corrupt organization with no structure and a dying police chief (Harrelson). To make the cops reopen the case, she criticizes them publicly on three billboards that spark controversy in the town. As the film’s plot thickens, we meet the townsfolk and explore everything from motherhood to police brutality to the meaning of life itself.
McDonagh brings a certain precision to the screen in terms of direction and writing. The film has a sense of history to it; the town and the characters feel lived in and worn out, with a deep interconnectedness between them. He carefully crafts the emotions and the black humor of his world to the point where every choice and feels logical and well-placed. It is a rare experience.
I found myself laughing in one moment, crying a few minutes later, and then suddenly on the edge of my seat, my heart racing and ready to see the explosive denouement. The cinematographic construction within the film interprets, heightens and complements the written material in a visually enticing way.
McDonagh started his career as a playwright in the tradition of Irish theatre. In these plays, such as The Cripple of Inishmaan (1996), he explored themes of love, passion and death among working Irish men and women. He then made the transition into film with the black comedy In Bruges (2008), a personal favorite of mine, and followed that with Seven Psychopaths (2012).
However, Three Billboards is his best work yet, by far. He combines the plot structures of his classic Irish dramas and transplants them into a uniquely American setting, which matches the fantastical plot of the film.
To top this off, the performances in this film were universally spectacular. Frances McDormand gives her most memorable performance since Fargo (1996), and is so dedicated to the role that it is almost impossible to imagine her as anything but that character. She is strong and in command in every scene that we see her.
Sam Rockwell is the other standout who, while playing a disgraced and racist cop, still makes his character accessible and understandable. Rockwell also delivers one of the best written character arcs I’ve seen in a long time. Both aforementioned actors should deserve nominations, if not wins, in their respective categories for the Academy Awards. They’re that good.
The rest of the ensemble, highlighted by Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage, are also stellar and deserve individual recognition. It is a wonderful cast, and one of the best ensembles that I’ve seen since Birdman (2014).
I cannot recommend this film enough. It is a unique film of such breadth and character that it makes me want to see it again and again. Mr. McDonagh, you have made yourself a masterpiece!
This film is playing at the Grandview Theatre through Dec. 13. Go see it as soon as possible. I’m giving this one a 10/10.