'Three Billboards' has same strengths as 'Fargo'

Rick Bentley
Tribune News Service (TNS)

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is the 21st century answer to "Fargo."

"Billboards" director/writer Martin McDonagh uses the same kind of cinematic formula as the Coen brothers did in their Oscar-winning film of combining a compelling story with boldly stereotypical characters and seasoning it all with dramatic heat and dark comedy to make his movie. The only slight difference is Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her work in "Fargo," and at this point her performance in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is only Oscar-worthy.

McDonagh's film focuses on the efforts by a grieving mother, Mildred Hayes (McDormand), to get the local police to work harder on solving the gruesome death of her daughter. After months of no movement, Mildred decides to rent three rundown billboards that she can see from her front yard. The message she has plastered on the signs is a question to the local chief of police, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), of why there has been no progress made in the case.

Frances McDormand, left, and Woody Harrelson star in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." The movie opens Dec. 1 at Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13.

Instead of immediately being sparked to return to the investigation, the public chastising of the police upsets Willoughby. His second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is sent into a rage by the billboards and repeatedly gives into his darker side as a way of getting the signs removed. None of this shakes Hayes because she's been through one of the greatest ordeals a person can face with the murder of her daughter.

Just as "Fargo" embraced the region when it came to culture and history, McDonagh does the same thing with his players. But even when he makes a character like Dixon start out looking to be little more than a stereotypical Southern police officer, there are twists revealed that show there is a lot more depth to the character.

Even Hayes is more than just a heartsick mother. It's slowly revealed that incidents before the murder have created a guilt so strong that the selection of the billboards near her home is as much about punishing herself as getting justice done. Her battle with the emotional pain of the last few months even pushes her across a line that usually clearly separates the good and evil in this kind of tale.

No matter how complicated the story or how many twists McDonagh interjects, he's selected a cast that delivers performances so masterful each moment of anguish, every second of facing fear and all instances of dealing with the kind of darkness that can emotionally blind a person comes across as painfully real. This is no real shock as he showed the same kind of writing and casting abilities in his films "In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths."

McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson have all done great work in the past, but each reaches a level in "Three Billboards" that sets new standards for them. Each is great when dealing with other cast members, but when there is a combination of any two of these three, there is magic.

Sam Rockwell, left, and Frances McDormand star in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." The movie opens Dec. 1 at Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13.

As if that weren't enough, even the supporting players turn in stunning work as if not wanting to let the quality of performances slip even a bit on their watch.

Abbie Cornish, who plays Willoughby's wife, goes from giving the production a little touch of sweetness to delivering one of the most heartbreaking lines of the film. Peter Dinklage looks only to be in the film for some comic relief as he's treated with anything but political correctness. But as the film goes along, Dinklage's character serves as a reminder that humanity still exists in the world.

The most intense and unforgettable supporting player is Sandy Martin, who plays Dixon's mother. She doles out motherly advice the way venomous snakes share poison. It only takes a few moments of her on screen to understand why Dixon is so quick to react with violence. Martin's performance is intensely chilling.

It helps that McDonagh gives the players great roles to play in a story that weaves easily from serious to silly. Just like "Fargo," the main thread of the story of "Three Billboards" is wrapped around a crime. But "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" takes that thread and weaves it into elements of family, faith and failure. There are numerous small details that get these points across, but discussing any would not be fair to the moviegoer who deserves to see the full tapestry of this movie in the purest of states.

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is that rare film that features a richly written tale brought to life through flawless performances. There should be three billboards erected near every major city to proclaim the beauty and power of this production that's easily one of the best movies of 2017.

4 stars
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Sandy Martin, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes.
Director: Martin McDonagh
Rated R for violence, language, sexual references
Running time: 115 minutes.