Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

On a lonely, seldom-traveled road just outside of the quiet town of Ebbing, Missouri, three fresh, blood-red billboards read "Raped while dying/And still no arrests/How come, Chief Willoughby?". The victim the billboards in question are referring to is Angela Hayes, a teenage girl who was raped, murdered, and immolated seven months ago, a sadistic act that, in the ensuing half a year since, the local police have made virtually no progress in solving. Frustrated with the stagnation of Angela's case, her mother, Mildred, puts the signs up as a direct challenge to the local sheriff, igniting a controversy that will end up (literally) setting this small, Middle American town on fire in Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, one of the best films of this year.

It's a film that's driven primarily by the theme of the inherently ugly nature and underlying tensions that are often bubbling underneath the smiling, "neighborly" facades of small American towns, hardly an original idea to put in a cinematic context, but one that McDonagh delivers potently here, not through putting any sort of novel spin on it, but simply through telling a strong story with his rude, battery acid-corrosive sense of humor, balanced with surprisingly genuine, heartfelt drama, and an emphasis on consistently sharp, insightful character development, even for some of the the supposed "bad guys" of this particular story.

Frances McDormand adds another unforgettable performance to what is already a film fan-favorite career in the starring role of Mildred Hayes, a borderline alcoholic divorcee who's obviously been weighed down by a long, hard life, and even harder current circumstances, but who refuses to buckle under the pressure, instead, rising to the occasion and shaking an entire town to its very core, at the same time, providing the film its core. Despite almost the entirety of Ebbing (including her own son, even) being dead-set against Mildred's billboards, she at no point shows any sign of wavering in her quest for justice, an aspect you see constantly McDormand's steely, determined embodiment of the character. It's a 100%, honest, fantastic performance any way you cut it, and come early March, not only would I not be surprised if she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, but it wouldn't surprise if she ended up taking one of the little gold men home with her, as memorable as her starring performance is here.

As for the rest of the rich ensemble of characters that McDonagh has assembled here, some of them are, admittedly, a bit broad in their characterizations, often being defined by one primary trait or aspect, which is a minor flaw with Billboards, but certainly enough not to ruin the film. After all, somewhat broad or not, the characters here are still well-developed regardless, as the film often shifts away Mildred in taking their particular perspective in the story, refusing to keep them at arm's length, even if they initially seem like the film's designated "antagonists", which they actually often aren't, not all of the time, anyway.

This sense of moral ambiguity extends to the way the film deals with the subjects of racism, police negligence and brutality, and other particular injustices we face in the world today, as McDonagh finds a way to be blatantly topical here without becoming preachy, rather, using the recurring themes to better tell a strong, individual story. Three Billboards is a film that presents many difficult questions, and provides us with no easy, pat moral conclusions to them, but it's this difficult aspect of the film that makes it so good, and what will almost certainly keep it near the top of my best of 2017 list come the end of this year. And, while I know it still hasn't received the widest of releases to date, if you can find this one still playing in a theater anywhere remotely near you, then you owe it to yourself to look at these Billboards, as soon as you possibly can.

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