Review of “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is struggling with grief and anger after her teenage daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was raped and burned to death less than a mile from her home. Dissatisfied with the lack of progress in her daughter’s case after nearly a year, Mildred approaches the owner of the local outside advertising company Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) about buying three billboards on the road where her daughter’s body was found with the following message: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Naturally, the billboards create quite a stink around Ebbing, Missouri. Police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) visits Mildred and explains there are no witnesses and the DNA found at the scene doesn’t match anyone in the national database. Unsatisfied with that answer, Mildred intends on keeping the billboards up for a year despite Willoughby’s revealing he has terminal cancer. Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is also upset by the billboards but he plans on taking a more direct approach: Harassing anyone associated with Mildred including Red and Mildred’s employer. Undaunted, Mildred intends on continuing her advertising campaign despite the public pressure as well as the complaints of her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes).

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a deceptively complex film. There are various layers of story that must be peeled back to reveal the core of the narrative. It is a movie that requires patience as it reveals itself to be something other than the status quo. It isn’t strictly a black comedy, a whodunit, a domestic drama or a thriller. It is a combination of all those genres with a little something extra thrown in that’s difficult to identify until you realize the obvious: “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is life.

Director and writer Martin McDonagh has crafted a rare and beautiful thing: A script that plays with convention and turns the obvious into the enemy. There is nothing in the movie that makes you think, “Seen that before.” It takes no easy way out; the characters make painful and challenging decisions and still manage to seem real.

McDonagh has a history of making unique movies as he’s the writer and director of “Seven Psychopaths” and “In Bruges.” He is also a very successful playwright, referred to in a New York Times article as the most important living Irish playwright with some of his plays running on Broadway and receiving Tony nominations. It isn’t a surprise that someone so successful at bringing characters to life in live theatre would also be able to create stunningly unique and vibrant characters for the screen. The fact McDonagh also has a handle on the visual aspects of cinema is the real surprise; crafting shots that are simple yet cinematic and tell a story all on their own.

McDonagh also gets spectacular performances from a stellar cast. Frances McDormand is a force of nature as Mildred. Always ready to defend herself and her beliefs with a quick curse or a long story, Mildred is not to be trifled with. She doesn’t take well to physical attacks either as a dentist finds out. Mildred is pushed into carrying out these actions by feelings of grief and guilt that are always just under the surface. If her daughter hadn’t been so brutally murdered she might only be an angry ex-wife with two mouthy kids and a humdrum life; but with Angela’s death Mildred has an all-consuming cause to occupy her mind and as she proves that can be a dangerous thing. McDormand gives a fiery performance and never shows one moment of weakness. It is a riveting portrayal of a woman that feels as if there is nothing she can’t do and with nothing left to lose despite having a teenage son left at home. Mildred is a flawed and broken woman and McDormand gives a flawless performance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her nominated for an Oscar.

Sam Rockwell also burns up the screen as racist drunk cop Jason Dixon. Rockwell is a chameleon, able to disappear into a role so completely you assume he is the character in life. Rockwell portrays a sad man that is realizing his dreams may be out of reach and that make him angry. He takes that anger out on the suspects brought in, especially those that are people of color. He makes no apologies for his beliefs that we later on learn are not as tightly held as we might think. Rockwell creates a despicable character that you still have some sympathy for. He’s broken but redeemable. This is also a performance that could get some award season attention.

Also on the list is Woody Harrelson as Police Chief Bill Willoughby. While not in the film as much as McDormand and Rockwell, Harrelson’s Willoughby is in a way the heart of the film. Both Mildred and Jason are on the opposite ends of the spectrum as far as their beliefs and action while Bill is firmly in the middle. As can be seen in his interactions with both of them, Willoughby is attempting to be a calming force on both of them. It takes an extreme action by the chief to get both their attentions. Harrelson is fantastic and in a way steals the movie every time he’s on screen. It is a measured and calm performance that belies the depth of the character’s impact. I don’t want to give too much away but there are moments in Harrelson’s performance that will break your heart. He too may need to rent a tuxedo for the Academy Awards.

The secondary characters are also expertly performed and written. Peter Dinklage has a small (no pun intended) role as a local car dealer with a crush on Mildred. Their one and only date proves to be disastrous. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie like a coiled snake always ready to pounce. Robbie Hayes is the depressed son of Mildred and Charlie and shows the perfect amount of teen disdain for his parents while also backing off when he realizes he has crossed a line. Samara Weaving has only two scenes in the film as Charlie’s 19-year old girlfriend but makes the most of it with a couple of perfectly timed comedic performances. The entire cast is perfect and makes for a wonderful movie-going experience.

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references. We see a couple of characters violently beaten in two different scenes. One is thrown out a second-story window onto the street below. There is also a suicide shown where a character is shot in the head. The sexual references are mostly mild but the context of one reference is extremely disturbing. Foul language is common throughout the film.

It isn’t often that a film can take what could have been a simple and boring story and throw in enough twists and unusual choices to turn it into a fascinating movie that demands your attention. “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is just that film. With a multi-layered story, three fascinating primary characters and a cast that combines to deliver several amazing performances, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is the perfect film. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” gets five guitars.

Two new movies are opening this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Just Getting Started—

The Disaster Artist—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast available at WIMZ.com and wherever you download podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Get Out”

Chris Washington and Rose Armitage (Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams) are a young couple in love.  They are headed to a weekend away with her parents Dr. Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford), a neurosurgeon, and Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener), psychiatrist, at their secluded home deep in the countryside.  Before leaving, Chris was concerned about how Rose’s parents would react to him being black; but the couple greets him with open arms while Mr. Armitage is trying too hard to make Chris feel welcome.  Chris meets Georgina and Walter (Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson), the housekeeper and groundskeeper respectively, and notices the pair act a bit odd in a way that could be considered hostile.  Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) arrives home from medical school, gets drunk, and behaves somewhat aggressively towards Chris.  Missy does hypnotherapy and offers to place Chris under hypnosis to help him quit smoking.  Chris declines but Missy does it anyway, making Chris relive the night his mother died in a hit and run accident when he was 11.  This is the weekend of the annual family garden party with numerous guests expected to arrive.  One of those guests is Andrew Logan King (LaKeith Stanfield) who is also black.  When Chris approaches him, King also behaves oddly.  Chris attempts to secretly take a cell phone picture but the flash goes off.  King attacks Chris and has to be restrained by several guests.  Chris sends the photo to his friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a TSA agent, and he recognizes the man as someone that has been reported missing for six months.  Chris tells Rose they have to leave but the Armitage family has other plans.

 

“Get Out” is the first feature directed by Jordan Peele, best known as half the comedy team of Key and Peele.  Should the film be successful (and early indications are it will be), comedy’s loss will be moviegoer’s gain as this first outing is about as good a thriller and social commentary you can get and Jordan Peele will likely be directing many more movies.

 

Part of what makes “Get Out” extra creepy is the normalcy of most of what happens.  A young couple of mixed race, the man meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, the clash of cultures that is desperately being played down as much as possible, the awkward efforts to make the outsider feel comfortable, all of it is given this added veneer of effort and “everything is going to be alright” that screams to the audience that it won’t be close to alright.  These small touches I believe are what built up the dread in me as the events unfolded.

 

The film is filled with great performances from the entire cast.  Daniel Kaluuya shines as Chris.  You can see his desire to run away during every second of his time at the Armitage house.  He sticks out like a sore thumb during the garden party and feels like an animal in a zoo being looked over and appraised.  He can feel it but he brushes it off as his just feeling uncomfortable around a bunch of white people.  Kaluuya is a very talented young actor with an impressive list of credits on British TV as well as films and theatre.  If you have Netflix, check out his lead role in the episode of “Black Mirror” called “Fifteen Million Merits.”  His portrayal of Chris will likely have him doing even more work in movies in the US.

 

While the role of Chris’ friend Rod is small, Lil Rel Howery makes the most of his screen time.  Howery provides most of the comic relief in the film and it is all perfectly timed to relieve tension and prepare us for the next horror that is to come.  Howery is a stand-up comic with a special on Netflix and now perhaps a new career playing the funny best friend in movies.  Director Jordan Peele allows Howery to take over a scene and flex his comedy muscles while also making his character a TSA agent, something that already is the subject of more than a few jokes.  Howery is a joy to watch and he makes his brief appearances memorable.

 

While I don’t want to give too much information about what’s really happening in the story that makes it a thriller/horror film, I do want to complement the way the scarier aspects of the story are structured and introduced.  Not until late in the film do we gain a full understanding of what’s happening and when we do it hits with enormous emotional force.  Throughout the film we see the seeds of the plot being sown but don’t understand what’s going on right before our eyes.  When we finally have all the pieces of the puzzle, the reveal is especially satisfying in its twisted nature.  Most horror/suspense films show you the boogeyman, or reveal its existence, early on.  “Get Out” keeps its cards very close to its chest and only shows them when the time is perfect.  It’s a terrifically structured story and mystery written by Peele.

 

“Get Out” is rated R for language, bloody images, sexual references and violence.  The bloody images and violence is largely saved for the last 30 minutes or so of the movie.  During that time there are some fights, weapons used, parts of a surgical procedure are shown, there’s a bloody stabbing, a person hit by a car and some shootings.  The sexual references are very mild.  Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

 

“Get Out” is not just about thrills as it also makes a commentary about race and class in America.  When confronted with the fact their daughter is dating a black man, the parents try extra hard to show they have no problem with him.  Dad even takes Chris aside for a tour of the house and says he’d have voted for Obama a third time; but we all know this merely a smoke screen for his true feelings just as many whites profess their lack of racism despite incidents of racial hate being on the rise.  Some put on a happy and non-judgmental face to those of a different race then continue to judge and stereotype them behind their backs.  The movie puts a twist on that two-faced behavior that is more immediately dangerous but no less deadly.  It also does so without diminishing how tense and entertaining the film is.

 

“Get Out” gets five stars.

 

There are three new films coming out this week.  I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

 

Before I Fall—

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rgEzpE93so

 

Logan—

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RH3OxVFvTeg

 

The Shack—

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExPfhBQ6ps4

 

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.