3 1/2 (out of 4)
A triumph in artistic maturity, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes a case that Martin McDonagh may be the most talented writer-director to emerge in the last decade.
The opposite of the writer’s block-themed meta mayhem of Seven Psychopaths 5 years ago, Three Billboards is a daringly uncharacteristic original screenplay, with so many stranger than fiction plot turns that conjure a peculiar, studied realism. Though not nearly as quotable or hysterical as In Bruges, McDonagh's third film doesn't need to be, as it lands squarely in dramatic territory despite being very much a comedy-drama.
Thematically McDonagh covers so much ground. Within his tangle of finely fleshed out characters, we glimpse the irony within the slow grinding wheels of justice, the cyclical nature of violence, and the paradoxical connection between misery and comedy. Unpredictability and dry wit help the small-town politics and morality of vengeance feel both madcap and rather plausible from moment to moment.
McDonagh's characters are so believably drawn, evolving from Midwest stereotypes to real people by their respective ends. Frances McDormand is at her best, though I wish the script didn't offer up so many venomous zingers for her to dish out to lesser characters. Sam Rockwell offers up one of his best performances ever, while Woody Harrelson makes the most of another great character he fortunately gets to inhabit. Three Billboards may paint an unhealthy picture of grief, but as a triptych character study, the film manages to mesh a rich plot and terse, honest dialogue into a most entertaining and morally insightful final film.
Tonally, McDonagh's penchant for swift, brutal violence and foul-mouthed main characters shouldn't align with all the carnal brutishness and unapologetic bleakness of an unhinged mother attempting to impossibly right the wrong of her long dead daughter's rape and murder. Somehow the stabs to the gut from one of the scripts' narrative and emotional wallops or from the precise comic timing arrive exactly when needed.
To keep it brief...