- A SMALL TOWN SIMMERS: Frances McDormand channels her Coen brothers roots in Martin McDonagh's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."
Decades from now, we'll try to explain to our grandkids what it was like to live in the shitshowy year 2017. Everyone was on edge, all the time, we'll say. There was a pervasive sense that justice was an outdated notion, where the institutions charged with keeping you safe were incompetent or in decay, that rape and corruption had been normalized, and that if you didn't go into the street to raise hell about it, nothing was going to change. And without invoking the name "Trump" or mentioning Twitter or cable news or the FBI or Russian collusion, you could show the kiddos the thoroughly impressive "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." It's an unlikely candidate to nail the zeitgeist, but there we have it.
The three billboards in question are furious missives from Mildred (Frances McDormand), the mother of a teenager who was raped and murdered, aimed at rattling a small-town police department and its chief (Woody Harrelson) into action. The police — notably, a hotheaded thug cop named Dixon (Sam Rockwell) — take instant offense at the suggestion that they're slacking. The chief tries explaining the investigation's dead ends, while Dixon sets out to threaten the grieving mother. But Mildred, a tough cuss even before her daughter was killed, gives as good as she gets, a determination forged in part living through an abusive marriage with her now-ex, another cop (Chris Cooper).
Shooting in the worn hills and quaint streets of small-town North Carolina, writer/director Martin McDonagh ("In Bruges," "Seven Psychopaths") managed to build a tiny universe without any wasted breath or ignored roles. Behind the desk at the police station is where-have-I-seen-that-guy character actor Zelijko Ivanek, getting laughs from lines that could've been mere wallpaper. Samara Weaving has all of 10 lines as the spacey 19-year-old bombshell girlfriend of Mildred's ex-husband, and almost steals the entire film with just those. Peter Dinklage, the notable New Jersey-born Lannister, hasn't quite got the mid-American accent down, but he does create some sympathetic moments as a longshot suitor for Mildred. Lucas Hedges (as Mildred's son) and Caleb Landry Jones (as the billboard ad man) also have the sort of roles that could've been rote. Instead, you come to look forward to pretty much every character in the film appearing in a scene, no small feat in any film.
Seeing McDormand — veteran of such Coen brothers' movies as "Fargo," "Raising Arizona" and "Burn After Reading" — gives the immediate impression of a Coens film, as does seeing perpetual Coens collaborator Carter Burwell's name on the soundtrack. McDonagh is clearly striving for something in the Coens' vein: an American vision at once over-the-top and yet realistic enough to explain America as a place of simmering violence and anger waiting to explode. But he tempers it with genuine tenderness. A reading beyond the titular billboards will point to three other written notes in the film that get closer to the heart of the film. They're all profane, patient and emotionally generous. You'll just have to wait for them.
The touch and tone across seemingly dissonant themes are absolutely first-rate, and the result is a movie with uncommon emotional breadth and depth. Pitting his protagonist against small-town Missouri cops lets McDonagh evoke a clash of power and race and class and force that hints at (but never speaks) the names Ferguson or Michael Brown. If you live in this country — especially in the middle of it — you'll just pick up on these themes without even thinking they're particularly strange. "Three Billboards" captures a piece of predominantly white, rural America as a deeply dark comedy. You'll laugh throughout, and then wonder when, exactly, your sense of humor got so morbid.