Playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh likes to mess with us. The results can be disarming (In Bruges) or distressing (Seven Psychopaths), but in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri he explores new dramatic territory. Who else would present us with a protagonist we are bound to root for—then have her indulge in wildly extreme and dangerous behavior? He does the same with the ostensible villain of the piece, a hot-headed, racist deputy…but in reverse. How does he expect us to respond?

I surmise that he is trying to show that no individual is entirely good or entirely bad. While that may seem simplistic, it’s rare to find such contradictory characters in mainstream American films. It definitely helps to have actors as gifted as Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell to pull this off.

McDormand plays a woman whose teenage daughter has been brutalized and murdered, yet after nine months the culprit is still at large. McDormand’s fury knows no bounds—much to the embarrassment of her son (Lucas Hedges) and the frustration of the local police chief (Harrelson), who has done his best with no clues to the killer’s identity. Ebbing, Missouri is a small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business, but even friends are shocked when the grieving mother rents three crumbling billboards on the edge of town to express her rage at the Chief and his failure to bring her daughter’s murderer to justice.

McDonagh fills his movie with tart dialogue and colorful characters on the sidelines, as a novelist would. These details and sidebars make Three Billboards consistently entertaining—and thoroughly compelling. He isn’t afraid to go to extremes, much like his main character, which means that we don’t always know how to respond to given moments. A horrifying scene is followed by a burst of sassy, ironic dialogue. A hint of resolution leads us up a blind alley.

You never know what to expect, and that’s one reason this film is so striking. It may leave some viewers mildly dissatisfied because McDonagh doesn’t wrap up his varied story threads in a nice, neat package. What he does offer is a consistently off-kilter view of human behavior, brought to life by a first-rate ensemble including John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Zejlko Ivanek, and Brendan Sexton III. The small-town setting feels real, and so do most of the characters. Sometimes I wish McDonough’s world view wasn’t quite so twisted, but he’s never dull and he showed great wisdom in casting McDormand in the leading role. (He wrote the part with her in mind.) She is incapable of striking a false note, and that more than anything else is what makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a must-see.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024