Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Yes, the title reads on the screen: outside, with a lower case "o."  Why?  That isn't explained.  And inexplicable is the perfect descriptor for Martin McDonagh's film work--in a good way, usually (if you've seen the auteur's In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths, you know what we mean).  Inexplicably random and bizarre events occur within the story, and people respond in inexplicably bizarre and random ways.  You either buy it or you don't--the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival bought it, bestowing on TBoEM its eponymous award.  One thing we have to admit: McDonagh's films are certain to surprise.  He clearly is inspired by the work of the Coen brothers--their juxtaposition of humor and horror, of quirkiness and violence.  But their styles diverge in two distinct ways: 1) Coen characters can be eccentric and at times behave in extreme ways, but their behavior is plausible in character, if extreme; 2) Coen situations at times brush up against tragedy, but seldom does tragedy become a hallmark element of their films.  Judging by trailers alone--even the Red Band one--filmgoers will be surprised by both of these elements, and while tragedy adds depth to TBoEM, the implausibility detracts from it (we won't delve into spoilers, so you will see; just be prepared).

As the film opens, Mildred (Frances McDormand) is driving along a two-lane blacktop in her beat-up station wagon.  Seven months before, her daughter was brutally raped and murdered.  No clues were left, and the crime seems destined to go unsolved, an unacceptable fate to Mildred.  She passes three derelict billboards and gets an idea: hustling to the ad agency, she pays owner Red Welby (a nicely weird Caleb Landry Jones) to post a provocative series of messages, reading respectively:  "Raped While Dying," "And Still No Arrests," "How Come Chief Willoughby?" calling out the town's Police Chief (Woody Harrelson).  This catches the attention of the whole town, most sympathetic to Willoughby and his family--wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) and two little girls.  Some try to reason with her--an exchange between Mildred and a Catholic priest goes badly for the cleric; the town dentist tries to get tough with her and regrets it.  Most radically offended: Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Willoughby's racist, momma's-boy deputy.  Driven on by his back-hills' mother from Hell, Dixon takes things to a whole different level of crazy.  The more the townfolk oppose her, the more Mildred digs in her heels, bringing humiliation to her innocent son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) at school and drawing renewed hostility from her estranged abusive spouse (John Hawkes), who prefers a peaceful existence with his newfound 19-year old love.  Not everyone is hostile to Mildred, though: the town's small minority population identifies with her as fellow victims, and Peter Dinklage, all mulleted and mustachioed, is a wishful suitor, becoming both accomplice and alibi.  We know events will escalate, but the levels they reach, and the redemption that comes is wholly unexpected.

What we have come to expect from McDonagh is a story that immediately engages us and at times veers tortuously into unexpected directions, but the true rewards of TBoEM are the well-drawn, complex characters.  Woody Harrelson has never been better; all canny intelligence leavened by homespun charm.  Sam Rockwell has the supporting role of a lifetime; rarely have we been treated to a character as despicable, funny, pitiable, and heart-rending--sometimes all at once.  Even minor characters are well-drawn and get their moments to shine.  But the movie belongs to McDormand.  McDonagh wrote the part specifically for her, and it fits her like a glove.  She mentioned that she interpreted Mildred as a John Wayne-type, and it shows, even down to her walk; indeed, the film takes on aspects of a classic Western, righting a wrong in a small town, à la Wayne's own The Sons of Katie Elder.  Still, though, McDormand retains enough of her own persona to go off on her patented profane riffs and sardonic rants.  Carter Burwell's score, resonant with both American and Celtic folk roots. carries an air that wafts between home-spun and elegiac, the latter especially evident in Renee Fleming's heartbreaking Celtic rendition of "The Last Rose of Summer."  Expect to hear it often on Oscar night.
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
9.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (certain nominations for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Score).


Gina said...

"Outside" is not capped in the title because prepositions are not capped in titles (e.g. "in" or "on" or "at"). It's correct as written, which is why it isn't explained. :)

McDonagh's achievement here in only 83 pages of script is astounding. He wrote/directed (I think) "In Bruges," too, which is another great script.

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