There is nothing more joyous for a movie appreciator than when a cinematic experience surprises. You know, when you go into the theater with expectations and they are exceeded by seismic levels. That is when the medium is at its finest. If that said motion picture also manages to strike a chord on an emotional level that haunts the soul long after the credits have rolled, than that my friends is the purest definition of movie magic that exists.
Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is that film.
Within the first moments of Three Billboards, the power of what playwright-turned-screenwriting wizard Martin McDonagh has done becomes clear. All watching will instantly become a willing voyeur into this mesmerizing world he has created. The man who gave us 2008’s In Bruges and 2012’s Seven Psychopaths has elevated his gifts with each successive effort. With his latest, the British-born auteur has crafted a story that chronicles something terribly disturbingly tragic and awful, yet is still simultaneously downright hilarious, heartwarming and never loses sight of it bristling self awareness.
Frances McDormand is Mildred. Her daughter was murdered and then burned beyond the point of recognition and although a year has passed, the local police have no leads, no suspects and from what it seems like to the victim’s mother, no intention to amp up the effort to bring justice to this traumatized family. Sitting on the side of the road near her house, she gets an idea when she witnesses a trio of decrepit billboards. She is getting nothing resembling justice. So, she uses these three billboards as a catalyst to asking the town’s lawman — Sheriff Willoughby (Harrelson) — why there has been no arrests.
To say that causes trouble is an understatement.
McDormand is leading the Oscar race for Best Actress. There is no question that McDormand will win her second Oscar. Her performance is just exquisite. That race, officially, is over. She somehow manages to find a whole new level of depth and power than we’ve ever seen from her. It is stunning, inspiring and moving in a manner that every parent could commiserate. Actually, every person with a beating heart should aspire to be that human and raw, all in the name of getting justice for someone so close. There is a humility to the character, which may be McDormand’s greatest surprise in her tool box when it comes to crafting this character. She is as sharp as an icicle, but when the situation calls for her she can revert back to the nurturing mother we know she has been.
This has been a banner year for Harrelson, who has been going full spectrum in the character department. His turn in Three Billboards is a study of a man caught between life and death in the most literal and figurative ways. He is every bit the small town sheriff as he is a dotting father of young kids. Harrelson’s Willoughby needs this kick in the pants delivered by Mildred, but its timing couldn’t be worse. How that is handled by McDonaugh and his actors is nothing short of the definition of emotional power.
Then, there is Rockwell. He likely too will hear his name called when Oscar nominations are revealed. If it sounds like the two leads have quite an arc to work with it — that is because they do and both do so brilliantly. Rockwell would you believe, has the biggest movement on the character arc scale and as such delivers the best and most in tune performance of his career. Every actor dreams of digging their teeth into a role like Rockwell has with his dim-witted cop.
McDonagh, merely three films into his writing and directing career, shows us that if this is the beginning of brilliance, audiences and film fans have decades of life affirming and movie loving ahead.