Foul but fantastic

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Three Billboards one to watch when Oscars roll around

REVIEW

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Stars: 4.5

Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Samara Weaving, and Peter Dinklage

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh

Rated: 14A for coarse language and violence

Runtime: 115 minutes

Now playing at Landmark Cinemas 8 in St. Albert

It’s impossible to predict how some people will react in the face of death and great personal tragedy. Some cry and move on with eventual acceptance. Some find their comfort in religion while others rail against God and the system.

For Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand) in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the only way to take her fight for justice is to rent advertising space as mentioned in the title of the movie. In three simple and curt messages, she tells the world that she is not going to give up fighting to find out who killed her daughter Angela even if it seems like the police have failed. Ebbing is not a large city and Mildred figures that somebody must know something, especially Sheriff William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) or even Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a powder keg with a badge for a fuse.

McDormand, Harrelson, Rockwell … one might think that casting like this means that a comedy was in production. Three Billboards only relies on the comedic training and astute sensibilities of its stars though as a way to provide unexpected moments of levity in an otherwise heavy adventure. For example, Mildred has a pretty foul mouth but some of her crass outbursts are delivered so well that they can’t help but infect the audience with laughter. Those with sensitive ears, however, might prefer to watch Woody Woodpecker this weekend instead.

This movie plays out in part like a Western with the underpinnings of a folk protest song. As Hayes, McDormand is a grim and unwavering hero for the underdog. When her ads result in the backlash of not just the police but many Ebbingians including her own son and ex-husband, she doesn’t cower. Rather, she steels her resolve and makes sure everyone knows not to mess with her.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh has a fine way of delivering wonderful if highly unconventional material such as this. If you haven’t watched his previous features In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths then you should. He doesn’t always present you with likeable characters. He doesn’t always wrap stories up nicely. He doesn’t always let his audience rest comfortably. It’s not that what you witness on screen is anything particularly shocking visually but that his plots turn unexpectedly. It’s one thing to have the main protagonist-antagonist relationship be between Mildred and the sheriff but how are we supposed to react when we learn of his illness? He becomes sympathetic and she somehow less so. This is truly marvelous filmmaking. McDonagh toys with our emotions like a cat with a still live mouse in its mouth.

This is one of those few movies that’s well worth a second watch, especially with the subtitles. Again, heed this fair warning to those who don’t care for cussing. McDormand already has one Oscar for her indelible portrayal of a pregnant sheriff in Fargo. I absolutely love her. She knows how to use her substantial dramatic talents to get into a character and make them memorable, especially one as foul and fed up as Mildred is. Every one of her eye gestures says volumes. That, along with pretty much everything else here, is damned impressive.

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About Author

Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.