This was a movie where the more I heard about the movie, the more I wanted to see it. A murder mystery plot with pitch black humour is right up my alley, what I didn’t expect was it to affect me in quite the way it did.
A grieving mother (Frances McDormand), fed up with the perceived lack of police activity hires three billboards just outside of her quiet hometown, Ebbing, Missouri. The town quickly turns against her in support of the popular Police chief, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
This movie literally left me speechless, I can’t remember the last time that happened when I enjoyed a movie so much it genuinely left me gobsmacked, as the credits rolled I sat there, in silence, jaw slack, this is why I love movies so much.
Let’s start with the seemingly obvious, the cast in this are absolutely incredible, not only are the performances terrific, it’s also masterfully written as a character piece. Frances McDormand leads the cast, as Mildred Hayes, a mother whose daughter was raped and murdered close to her house, in a complex and masterful performance she channels a mother on the verge of breakdown and a borderline sociopath bent on revenge. As much as we sympathise with Mildred, she’s not always easy to like, that just stands as testament to the performance and writing that both sides of the character can be balanced and not seem like a stretch, from scene to scene she can turn the character on a dime so believably it’s insane.
Elsewhere in the cast is another pair of layered performances of two characters with such devastating arcs, one of which actually made me shed a tear, unapologetically I might add. First let’s talk about Woody Harrelson, a seasoned vet of cinema at this point, if you think you’ve seen all he has to offer, think again. His character, Chief Willoughby is an anomaly of cinema, when the films sets out it’s plot, you expect the usual tyrannical local police chief, only for the movie to subvert those expectations and gives you a sympathetic and thoroughly human character, with flaws and troubles, then an extra twist is added, which in many ways, turns Willoughby into the more traditional protagonist role, it’s so difficult to talk about this movie and it’s complex twists and turns in a non-spoiler way, but I’m going to stick to it, as it’s a film you really need to experience to enjoy fully.
Finally, Sam Rockwell is the third in a trifecta of masterful performances. Portraying the somewhat unstable police officer Jason Dixon, yet again the writing subverts all usual cinematic conventions to deliver a character of such variety that trying to predict what he’ll do next is near impossible, it could be argued that Jason has the most satisfying arc of the three main characters, as satisfaction for these characters isn’t something that happens frequently in this movie.
Just as I was writing this, the Oscar nominations were announced and as suspected this movie has a fair few nominations, I genuinely think it’ll be a travesty if Frances McDormand isn’t honoured with the Best Actress gong, I’ve never seen a performance that begs for the distinction without wandering into ‘Oscar-bait’ territory (Looking at you, Anne Hathaway in Les Mis. Both Harrelson and Rockwell are nominated for Best Supporting Actor too, God help whoever has to make that choice.
It isn’t just the acting where this movie excels however, as it’s helmed by Martin McDonagh (an Academy Award winner in his own right) he’s also responsible for the incredible script, the show of a multi-talented filmmaker. Some of his direction choices call back to Westerns, both classic and modern, image wise I’d say it feels most like No Country For Old Men, if a little less intense at times. As a script it brilliantly balances some heavy emotionally driven drama and pitch-black humour without feeling like it’s overworking itself, it’s also brilliantly paced, you barely notice the two hours go by, the narrative does such a great job in pulling you in early, and doesn’t let go until the final frame, it takes you on an emotional rollercoaster that it takes a few hours to recover from, even then it’ll stay with you for days on end, there’s no higher praise than that really.
In conclusion, this is a cinematic masterpiece, and I speak no hyperbole there. In a few years it’ll be seen as a true Hollywood classic. It is, however, an incredibly emotionally heavy movie, don’t let that put you off though, it’s a ride that you simply must take yourself.