When it comes to North Carolina film, we used to be booming, drawing such films as “Iron Man 3” and “The Hunger Games” to shoot much of, if not the entirety of their extensive shoot in the Tar Heel State. Though, in recent years, and with a rescinding of tax incentives by former governor Pat McCrory, business has all but fled from the state to neighboring Georgia. Though, every now and then, we get a film or two to shoot in the area, and this year’s film just happens to be Oscar frontrunner “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Given a grant from North Carolina, the British-produced film was shot in Sylva, North Carolina, near Asheville. It’s a strange thing for our government to pick a British-funded, quirky indie to shoot in the state, but if that’s all we can get, we’ll take it at this point.
And what luck, because “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a damned masterpiece.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a volatile, foul-mouthed middle-aged woman living in the small mountain community of Ebbing, Missouri. Seven months prior to the start of the film, Mildred’s daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton) was abducted, raped and murdered near the outskirts of the community. Outraged by the lack of leads or arrests in the seven months following Angela’s death, Mildred posts three billboards near her home on the outskirts of town calling out the town’s police department for their lack of action in the case, calling out Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) in particular. While not seen by many on the road, the billboards strike up a town uproar against Mildred for her criticism of the police department, no more than drunk, racist, violent deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). This begins a town debate on free speech and criticism of police in the light of tragedy.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” might not sound like the most interesting film on paper, but hear me out in saying it’s one of the best films you’ll see this year. It’s dark, funny, tragic, sad, thought-provoking, haunting, fun and all-around moving as a whole experience, and the balance of everything that makes “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” so unique is as fascinating as the film itself is. It’s a bit of everything and yet nothing at the exact same time. Director Martin McDonagh has a way of making his films hilarious and yet entirely tragic all at the same time, with a real sense of darkness wriggled in-between every little crack to make no stone in the film feel unturned. This is an incredibly whole experience of a film that you don’t get often, and when you do, you hardly ever get the amount of both comedy, drama and everything in between you get here.
Performances in the film are some of the best you’ll find anywhere this year, with McDormand really making the case for her receiving of that coveted Golden Oscar come this March. Her character is flawed, but she’s one we root for, even cringe for when we know she’s making a bad decision. McDormand is a real force to be reckoned with here, and she really seems to be in tune with everything that McDonagh seems to be going with here, and in turn creates a character so wonderfully polarizing in her actions, yet so inherently pure in her intentions, that it’s hard to deny that it’s one of, if not the best performance of the year so far. Another fabulous performance comes from Rockwell, who plays a character so slimy and unlikable at times that it seems hard to see how anyone could feign retribution for him, but Rockwell seems intent on paving the way for him to at any point in the film. Rockwell has always been a consistently great actor, but never has had a real chance to shine to his full potential in something that everyone could be attuned to, but with “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” he seems to finally have found his true groove. It’s not that he’s never been this good before, but he’s never been able to shine in the way that he had the potential to as an actor until now, with such a unique, yet entirely repulsive character.
Other cast members are also great here. Harrelson is at some of his career best here as Chief Willoughby. He’s easily the more likable of the two police officers detailed in the film, even if he still takes much issue to Mildred’s attempts at retribution through her billboards. Harrelson has a character type he’s best at, just as many of the best actors do, but the best actors find ways to take the character they excel at and flesh them out in ways that they never had before from good writing and direction, which Harrelson is able to do here in heartbreaking spades with McDonagh. Other standouts include Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s emotionally distant son, Caleb Landry Jones at a career best as the advertising consultant who sells Mildred the billboards, Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s loving wife, and Peter Dinklage as an alcoholic car salesman who takes a real interest in Mildred. There isn’t a single performance in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” that isn’t spectacular.
This consistency comes in McDonagh’s fleshing out of every single character, no matter how grand or small they might be, receives a full and loving treatment from the filmmaker, giving each actor the ability to hone subtleties in their performances that most filmmakers put into their lead characters. Everyone in the film feels like their own person, and at any time, the gaze of the film could switch to them and would be able to pick up with the same amount of dexterity that McDonagh puts into the current film. Everyone has their perks and their flaws, which we get to view in full glory as the story progresses, and McDonagh seeks to apologize for none of it. He doesn’t ask for you to like the characters, but he simply asks for you to go along with them in the story. He realizes that the most imperfect characters come in those featured in full gaze, not the antagonists wading in the background for their chance to shine, but the protagonists waiting right in front of you. It’s a sort of focus on character that hardly any filmmaker has anymore.
This focus also gives way for an unlikely structure to the film, but one that feels incredibly lifelike. Things don’t always happen at opportune times, nor do they always happen in happy fashion. The film doesn’t hit the beats you expect, nor does it have to. The lack of any filmic structure here, plus its inherently human characters makes “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” feel real, and when a film feels real, the blows come hard and heavy, contrasting the often hilarious dialogue McDonagh has crafted so expertly in-between them. This is a surprisingly emotional film, hitting many beats one might not expect from a film this funny, but never feel as manipulative as a film with this plot might lead them believe from the outset. It’s simultaneously subtle and ridiculous and never manages to fill out either silhouette properly without making its own twists along the way.
And the film poses wonderful questions about the constraints of free speech against police about an investigation and the extent that the police have to silence critics along their way. McDonagh makes a surprising vouch for both sides during the film, left for the audience to decide on their viewpoint. McDonagh doesn’t seek to offer any answers for the questions at hand is a ballsy, yet responsible method of questioning the morals of the audience of his film.
Obviously, as the film was shot in Western North Carolina, it’s an aesthetically beautiful film in every regard, and even though McDonagh isn’t an inherently visual director, he does a lot of clever things here to switch up the normal feel of films such as this. Still, I do wish the film had taken place in North Carolina, if only for my own bias and wish for representation of the state on film, but a film in Missouri shot in North Carolina will do, I suppose. Especially when they’re as expertly crafted and beautiful as “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is.
I never call something the “Best film of [insert year here]” until the publication of my year end list detailing my favorite films of the year, but make no mistake, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” will definitely crack near the top of it. It’s an expertly crafted masterwork of filmmaking that does wonders to bend the constraints of genre in ways that most filmmakers could only dream to do, but McDonagh does with a certain ease here. It’s a clever, but not too clever, jab at the mundanity of rural life and the lengths many will go to to keep the mundanity in the face of threatening odds against the status quo. It’s a hilarious, if hauntingly dark look at the effects of grief and how the rejection of closure can take its toll on a person. It paints a million different little pictures within itself, within each character and each scene, ultimately coming together to create something even more impressive altogether, something cohesive from a million different cogs spinning all at once, something that’s grander than the town itself here.
Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Željko Ivanek, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Samara Weaving, with John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage.
Runtime: 115 minutes
Rating: R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.
Now playing exclusively at the Regal Manor Twin & Ballantyne Village.
Fox Searchlight Pictures and Film4 present, a Blueprint Pictures production, a Martin McDonagh film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”