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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri poster

No one in contemporary movies delivers the side-eye -- the withering, nonverbal judgment of the righteous -- the way Frances McDormand delivers it in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." Sometimes it's funny, because whoever she's playing is so much sharper than whoever she's acting opposite. Other times, it's more of a look of pity, or quiet resignation. This is what I have to deal with.

The film is writer-director Martin McDonagh's third feature, and all three are driven by violence, retribution and bizarrely funny banter. McDormand gives the movie a core of seriousness as Mildred, a woman mired in grief over the unsolved abduction, rape and murder of her daughter. This we don't see; hearing about it is bad enough.

The story begins seven months later. Using three dilapidated old billboards away from the main highway, Mildred, who works at a local gift store called Southern Charms, calls out the genial police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), by name. In a defiantly public way, she urges Ebbing law enforcement to solve the murder and deliver a bereft mother some peace.

From this setup, McDonagh sets a series of tit-for-tat revenge ploys into motion. Divorced from her abusive ex (John Hawkes) and raising their high school-age son (Lucas Hedges), Mildred is encouraged and soon threatened to take down the billboards by Willoughby and by his racist, thuggish deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Like a darker version of a Laurel and Hardy short, the ones where the boys one-upped James Finlayson or Billy Gilbert, "Three Billboards" raises the stakes as it goes. Dixon tosses the young, impressionable billboard advertising manager (Caleb Landry Jones) out a second-story window. Mildred torches the police station. Peter Dinklage plays an Ebbing outsider sweet on Mildred; rather too neatly, McDonagh establishes the narrative as the marginalized, the people of color and the woman of rage against the emblems of the white male patriarchy, Dogpatch division.

For a while it's engaging but pretty thin. Then it gets more interesting, especially for the actors. McDonagh reveals the Harrelson and Rockwell characters to be more complicated than expected, and the exceptional ensemble works wonders to flesh out the people doing the avenging, so that it's not just plot machinery and stick figures.

Shooting in western South Carolina (doubling for Missouri), McDonagh creates a vision of small-town Southern America that's half mythology, half reality. McDonagh came to fame by way of the theater; the first play of his to reach America, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," was extremely high-grade pulp. On Broadway it had people screaming as well as laughing at its depiction of terrible human behavior, usually among family members, in remote, forbidding Connemara, Ireland.

In "Three Billboards" we're not far spiritually from the lawless vigilante Wild West McDonagh drew upon for his Irish plays. In an interview at the Venice Film Festival this year, McDormand said her chief inspiration for Mildred was John Wayne. McDormand excels, even if her character's steely resolve threatens to become a cliche. It's Rockwell who gets the plum here. Dixon's a mama's boy with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. By the end of "Three Billboards," without giving too much away, McDormand and Rockwell are on the verge of an all-American sequel to McDonagh's droll first feature, "In Bruges," the one about the hit men hiding out in Belgium.

Will McDonagh ever leave the adolescent joker's streak behind him? In McDonagh's "7 Psychopaths," the protagonist is a thinly disguised self-portrait. From the 2012 Tribune review: The "7 Psychopaths" screenwriter character "yearns to write something meaningful and humane. Yet he can't help it: His impulses run the other direction." With McDonagh, maybe they always will. But in his fictional town of Ebbing, at least, he finds himself at an intriguing crossroads.

MPAA rating: R (for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references).

Running time: 1:55.

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