Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

If there’s one thing you should know about me when it comes to film, it’s that In Bruges is one of the best films ever made and you’re wrong if you disagree. Martin McDonagh, the brilliant Irish playwright, has decided to grace American cinemas with his presence again. It’s been a while since his woefully underappreciated second movie, Seven Psychopaths, and I’m glad he’s branching out from movies featuring Colin Farrell with an Irish accent. But it doesn’t mean I particularly liked this latest outing, even though I really wanted to.

It’s been almost a year since Mildred’s (Francis Mcdormand) daughter was horribly raped and murdered not half a mile from her home. The lack of suspects or arrests has pushed her to the brink. So to keep the case in the public eye, she purchases three billboards with very stark language: Raped While Dying. And Still No Arrests? How Come Chief Willoughby?

It’s a shot in the heart for the small town. A town that clearly wants to envision itself as a good, upstanding place. An exasperated Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) takes great offense to the billboards, and for good reason. By his word, he’s done all that he can. And the audience can believe him. But we can also believe that a grieving mother can want more than can be expected. That rage and grief are powerful emotions that make unthinkable actions very, very do-able.

It’s a character study at heart. If the title sounds like a play, it’s because the movie feels like a play. McDormand is the clear star. And her stoic, bad mouthed mom moves from set piece to set piece riling the pot. Harrelson steals scenes as he usually does, as the cancer-stricken Willoughby. His brief interactions with McDormand are full of love and hate. People who understand the others’ emotions but can’t get on the same page. And finally there’s Sam Rockwell’s dimwitted patrol officer Dixon, who has the only real arc in the film.

I enjoyed these characters as they played off and with each other. The jokes, when they arrive are funny in a I-can’t-believe-they-said-that sort of way. OR an I wish I could say that to someone sort of way. But the film stalled for me because it didn’t seem to know what it was. Is it a murder-mystery? Is it a standard drama? Is it just a nihilist play? I don’t know and I’m not sure I ever will.

What I do know is small. McDormand will get an oscar nomination for this. Sam Rockwell is amazing, and there’s a wonderful one-take shot he gets to chew up. They should probably start staging it for local theater right now. And, if you’re looking for catharsis, this isn’t where you’ll find it.

Also, Peter Dinklage is random. I think McDonagh just wanted to make some more midget jokes.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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