The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a movie for our time. If you've been feeling like apathy is causing important issues to be ignored, that morons have taken over some of our most vital institutions, or that it has become impossible to fight a broken system, then this is a film for you. Writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) has made a 115-minute cinematic scream of rage. The picture is as weirdly cathartic as it is entertaining.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a woman whose daughter was raped and murdered. She doesn't think police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has done enough to find the culprit. To spur him into action, she rents three billboards on the outskirts of town, plastering them with a message designed to taunt him. Needless to say, that doesn't go over too well, although Willoughby takes it better than one of his underlings, a cop named Dixon (Sam Rockwell) with a reputation for roughing up people of color.

Three Billboards shows Mildred repeatedly prodding Willoughby and his officers to do their job. The more they try to dodge her questions or intimidate her into not asking them the more extreme her methods become. The film plays the conflict between her and the cops alternately for dark humor and intense drama. The drama comes from Mildred's desperation to find out who killed her daughter. The comedy comes from her foul-mouthed, no-nonsense way of dealing with the people who aren't doing enough to satisfy her.

McDonagh seems to know that his tale could follow a predictable path. He avoids the pitfall by introducing a number of unexpected twists and complications, none of which will be revealed here. What can safely be said is that the movie explores the way people change as the circumstances around them change, and as new information becomes available to disrupt their previously-held convictions. Not knowing where Three Billboards is going to go from minute to minute is one of its greatest pleasures, even if two or three of the developments mildly strain plausibility.

Frances McDormand gives her best performance since Fargo. She conveys Mildred's deep pain, while simultaneously earning laughs from the manner in which the character conducts herself. Mildred, as the saying goes, has zero you-know-whats left to give. That makes her compelling to follow. There are no potential consequences that will deter her mission, there's no one she's worried about offending. McDormand makes us understand how she got to this point. It's a magnificent piece of acting that generates enormous empathy.

Excellent supporting work comes from the ever-reliable Woody Harrelson, as well as Caleb Landry Jones (as the billboard owner), John Hawkes (as Mildred's abusive ex-husband), and Peter Dinklage (as a local man with a crush on her). But aside from McDormand, the true standout is Sam Rockwell. At first, we hate Dixon. He's both racist and an idiot. By the end, he is still both of those things to some extent, yet we also realize the bigotry probably stems from the idiocy. In other words, he says and does some bad things without wholly being a bad person. Such a transition is tricky. Rockwell ensures that we buy it.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri brims with righteous anger. Although it focuses on the dilemma of one woman, the story speaks to a great many things, particularly the value of unrelenting forthrightness in holding public officials accountable. The message: Get pissed. It just might do the world around you some good.

( 1/2 out of four)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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