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Brace Yourself For The Deeply Dark Humor OF THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (Review)

English playwright turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh is renowned for unearthing brilliant, gut-busting guffaws out of deeply dark places. His Oscar-winning short Six Shooter followed a suicidal widower on a pivotal journey. His first feature In Bruges centered on a harried hitman hiding out in a historic city. Seven Psychopaths‘offered a showbiz comedy with an array of maniacs and killers. But Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is his most challenging and sensational film yet. Brace yourself, because this brutal dark comedy is also one of the best films of the year, hands down.

Embedding his story in rural Middle America, McDonagh strips away the theatricality that gave his past dark comedies bounce. This time, his hero is no mugging murderer or scandalized screenwriter, buzzing with bad boy charm courtesy of Colin Farrell. Coolly ferocious with a cutting smirk, Frances McDormand stars and sets up a bitter, biting brand of humor grounded in small town desperation. She plays Mildred Hayes, the grieving mother furiously seeking justice for murdered daughter, Angela. When the local police stop calling, Mildred takes matters into her own hand by calling them out with a series of three big, red billboards that stand angry and defiant on the edge of town. They read: “RAPED WHILE DYING / AND STILL NO ARRESTS / HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

Woody Harrelson plays Chief Willoughby. Gone is Harrelson’s signature snark, traded for a world-weariness he wears like a crown. Willoughby visits Mildred’s home, and as they sit on her yard’s rusted swing set, they have a frank heart-to-heart. He pleads they’ve done all they can do; she declares it’s not enough. These are hardworking, caring people who respect each other, but are irrevocably at odds. Their tightly knit community has been ripped in two, sparking violence, an explosion, but ultimately some crucial moments of striking compassion.

Empathy beats at the bloody heart of even McDonagh’s darkest tales. He invites us to understand characters that could easily be written off as despicable. His Ebbing is full of them: the bad mom, the unruly teen, the inept chief, the racist cop, the alcoholic car salesman, and the belligerent wife-beater. But with a script as loaded with compassion as it is curse words, McDonagh–who has elevated foul-language to an four-lettered art form–urges you to laugh at and care for these rascals and scoundrels. While they banter with wit, fury and trembling vulnerability, he dares you to look behind their hard exteriors, greatest sins, and gruff language, to see their common humanity. But this can be hard to swallow when it comes to an arrogant, ignorant cop notorious in the force.

McDormand is gives the performance of an already incredible career, crafting a volatile portrait of grief that is blistering with rage and regret, but studded with a stirring resilience and wrathful humor. Whether she’s cussing at the local priest, offering tenderness in a grim moment, or kicking a teen vandal square in the crotch, McDormand commands the screen and plays her audience like a fiddle, stroking our outrage, tugging at our heartstrings, and coaxing screams of reckless laughter.

Harrelson is her straight man, adversary, and with a panoply of curse words and a dollop of macho charm, proves to be her perfect scene partner. Sharp supporting turns are offered John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges, and Peter Dinklage, who play some of the men in her life, past, present and possibly future. But it’s Sam Rockwell’s role that’s most likely to spark debate.

Rockwell co-stars as Dixon, a redneck cop who has a reputation for “torturing” Black suspects. It makes him the disgrace of the Ebbing police, and the butt of jokes around an otherwise friendly pool hall. It also makes his character a kind of Chekov’s gun. Dixon’s reputation dooms him to go off, and we are left to wait and worry how that might hit the locals who are far more likable. But McDonagh excavates to uncover the humanity in even this vile fool, offering a message of hope in Dixon’s savage quest for redemption.

Touching on rape culture and Black Lives Matter, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri feels very much a movie of this moment, where battle lines are firmly drawn, and a peaceable compromise seems increasingly impossible. McDonagh won’t do these issues the disservice of offering up an easy answer. Instead, his film ends in a curious–and even frustrating–place that refuses to let audiences off the hook. Fuck closure. Rejecting a witty ending or a happy one, this thought-provoking filmmaker leaves his audience with no exit out of Ebbing. Like its deeply flawed locals, we’re left to linger, and wonder, “How come?” And more unnerving, “What now?”

4.5 out of 5 burritos

Images: Fox Searchlight

Kristy Puchko is a freelance entertainment reporter and film critic. You can find more of her reviews here. Follow her on Twitter!

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