'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' is an enthralling character study in loss (review)

Thursday, 23 November 2017, 06:51:48 AM. It's important for audiences not to expect a Hollywood-style police procedural from McDonagh.

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Violent death, deadly disease, gruesome disfigurement and painful divorce: This is award-winning Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's idea of a rip-snorting comedy. And he's very good at it. He puts the dark in dark comedy like no other contemporary writer today.

In "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," he turns his jaundiced eye to the rural Midwest, where Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is unhappy with the lack of progress made by Ebbing Police Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) in the investigation of her teenage daughter's rape and murder seven months earlier.

Willoughby, married with two young children, by the way, has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Divorced, single mom Hayes has spent $5,000 to rent three billboards just outside of town to denigrate the police force. The police, and most of the town, are not happy with her very public displeasure. Even the local TV station has taken notice.

Sam Rockwell plays Jason Dixon, a dimwitted officer serving under Willoughby. He's an alcoholic and racist who lives at home with his alcoholic, racist mother. But he is feverishly devoted to his ailing boss.

All the performances are outstandingly genuine, from McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell on down. They all ride on McDonagh's laserlike character development and crackling dialogue.

McDormand shines as the feisty Mildred, who will take no guff from cops, the local priest or snotty, ignorant high school kids. But the emotional pain she feels over her daughter's violent death haunts her every line of dialogue and expression.

It's important for audiences not to expect a Hollywood-style police procedural from McDonagh. It's not there.

He writes about flawed people under extreme emotional conditions. There are no "good" or "bad" people in his writing world. He fleshes out characters and gives them room to move either way within the moral universe.

That's why his stories are so emotionally satisfying. Especially when they are backed up with the powerhouse cast of "Three Billboards."

I've seen two of his plays: "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "The Cripple of Inishmaan." Both are brilliant, morbid and hilarious examinations of the human soul based in rural Irish culture. They are not to be missed.

He brings that same keen eye and razor-fine writing to his American cousins in Ebbing, Missouri. He treats them with a similar cruel but deep affection.

Plays are not movies. They are different art forms. But McDonagh has found a way to bring the best gifts of his stage work over to the silver screen. And we, the movie audience, are all beneficiaries of his effort. "Three Billboards" is a shining example.

REVIEW

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Who: With Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones and Abbie Cornish. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. 

Rated: R.

Running time: 115 minutes.

When: Opens Wednesday.

Where: Area theaters.

Grade: A

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