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D: Martin McDonagh / 115m

Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek, Sandy Martin, Clarke Peters, John Hawkes, Samara Weaving, Peter Dinklage, Kerry Condon

Every now and then – too rarely, perhaps – a movie comes along and just sucker punches the viewer, leaving them out of breath and wondering what the hell just happened, and was that a movie that did all that? Movies such as these often come out of nowhere, with minimal fanfare, but have the greatest impact. This year, there are two movies that fit that description. One is Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, and the other is Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Both movies have the ability to draw in the viewer within minutes of starting, and both movies have the ability to keep the viewer engaged and involved and wanting to know what happens next. Baker achieves this through his characters, while McDonagh achieves this through a complex narrative that never goes where you expect it to. Both movies are among the finest examples of modern day movie making that you’re ever likely to see. In short, they’re magnificent.

But before you begin to wonder if this is going to be a review of both movies, let’s step away from The Florida Project and focus fully on Three Billboards… It concerns a mother, Mildred Hayes (McDormand), whose teenage daughter, Angela, was killed in a particularly horrific way seven months before. The police investigation has stalled, and to Mildred’s mind they’ve stopped looking for her daughter’s killer. Unhappy with this, Mildred decides to make use of three unused billboards on the outskirts of town. She rents all three and uses them to bring the public’s attention to the fact that her daughter’s murder remains unsolved. The billboards prove divisive, and the local police, headed up by Chief William Willoughby (Harrelson), try to persuade Mildred to have the billboards taken down (well, they are pretty critical of the police, and the chief in particular). But Mildred remains resolute. The reaction(s) she seeks, however, aren’t exactly what she’d hoped, and as the billboards further fan the flames of division and animosity within the town, what transpires over the next few days is both surprising, and in some cases, life-changing.

First of all, this really isn’t going to go the way you expect. Be warned, McDonagh the writer is in cahoots with McDonagh the director, and both men want to keep you on the edge of your seat trying to work out what’s going to happen next. And this isn’t your bog standard, predictable murder mystery where suspects and red herrings and hidden clues are bandied about like house keys at a swingers party. This follows its own darkly comic path while also packing a strong dramatic punch or three when it needs to. It’s brave, it takes chances, it certainly doesn’t lack for confidence, and it features a trio of excellent performances. This is only McDonagh’s third feature after In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). Those movies are good, very good in fact, but this sees McDonagh stepping up several notches at once and showing a command of the medium that is hugely impressive. In 2012 he was quoted as saying, “…the amount of control for a playwright is almost infinite, so you have that control over the finished product. But in film, you’re the lowest form of life. So that was half of the job of directing, was not letting someone else come in and fuck it up.” He needn’t be worried anymore: Three Billboards… is almost perfectly realised, and is far and away one of the finest movies of 2017.

To reveal more of the plot and how it all plays out would be to spoil the movie completely for anyone coming to it fresh and without any advanced knowledge other than what can be guessed from the brief outline recorded above. But what can be expressed is the strength of the material over all, the precise way in which McDonagh introduces his characters and then takes them on journeys we and they could never expect, how easily McDonagh can change the tempo and the tone of a scene in seconds and still make it all feel organic, and all the while juggle themes of regret, anger, guilt, loss, and pride. This is also about revenge and the need for someone to be accountable (and if not the killer, then the police), and the way in which that anger can hollow out a person. And with all that, McDonagh still manages to include elements relating to racism, casual violence, anti-authoritarianism, self-pity, fate, spousal abuse, peer pressure, and blind chance. That it all fits together so well is yet another tribute to McDonagh’s expertise as a writer and a director.

He’s helped tremendously by the performances of McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell. McDormand is as fierce as we’ve ever seen her, commanding our attention in every scene, Mildred’s determination to follow her own path given sympathetic expression through her steely gaze and forthright opinions and sense of justice. She does things that challenge our sympathies, but McDormand never allows us to lose sight of the pain and anguish that Mildred is still experiencing after so long, and in doing so Mildred remains a singular character with a singular goal. As the chief of police, Harrelson gives one of his best performances, infusing the character with a mixture of remorse, hopefulness and resignation. It’s a thoughtful portrayal, one that allows Harrelson to show a more restrained, internal approach to the part, and one that provides one of the movie’s more emotionally compelling moments. And then there’s Rockwell, a wilful force of nature who acts like a whirlwind leaving a trail of devastation in his wake. It’s an unforgettable performance, brash, loud and unashamedly complex in its creation, and Rockwell walks a fine line between arrogance and childish insubordination as Dixon, a man with his own issues to deal with.

The rest of the characters, most of whom orbit around Mildred, Willoughby and Dixon, are all perfectly cast, and McDonagh doesn’t neglect them, instead making them all integral to the story, from Jones’s advertising manager who sticks to his guns when the police try to intimidate him into withdrawing Mildred’s “ads”, to Martin as Dixon’s mother, a wry, darkly humorous turn that explains much of why her son is the way he is. The humour is important here, as McDonagh uses it to diffuse the terrible tensions and horrific nature of much of the material, and to shade the various levels of grief and anger experienced by the characters. Again, it’s a terrific balancing act that McDonagh pulls off, and there are many moments where the viewer has no choice but to laugh out loud or face up to the tragedy that is continuing to unfold even after seven months. All this is beautifully photographed by DoP Ben Davis, carefully edited and assembled by John Gregory for maximum effect, and set to another quietly ambitious score by Carter Burwell. Quite simply, it’s a must-see movie.

Rating: 9/10 – heartbreaking, powerful, exquisite, emotionally perceptive, profane, unpredictable, and unapologetic in tone and ambition, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a masterpiece of modern movie making; a movie to be absorbed into and then released at the end with your heart pounding, it takes big risks and pulls off every single one of them, making this not just a triumph for its writer/director, but a wonderful, magnificent surprise for anyone who decides to engage with it.