Sometimes it takes an outsider to help you see your own life from a fresh perspective, and that’s certainly the case in the new movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
Written and directed by British playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh, who received a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for his 2008 debut film “In Bruges,” “Billboards” offers a powerful portrait of three-dimensional people finding different ways to deal with intense personal pain in the heartland of America.
Even more remarkably, McDonagh manages to do it in a way that features some of the biggest belly laughs of the year, incredibly touching moments and edge-of-your-seat excitement. Where “In Bruges” found its Academy Award count limited to one nomination, this easily could be one of the heavy hitters in this year’s Oscar race.
The film opens on an embittered middle-aged mother named Mildred (Frances McDormand in a role that both recalls and surpasses her classic turn in “Fargo”), as she notices a trio of decrepit billboards on the outskirts of her hometown of Ebbing, Missouri. Her teenage daughter was brutally raped and murdered seven months before, and the sheriff (Woody Harrelson) and his underlings have proven unable to solve the sordid crime.
Mildred decides to rent the billboards to display a series of confrontational messages aimed to shame the sheriff into finally solving the crime. But a series of unexpected consequences occurs as the townspeople react badly to the disturbing signs and a series of shocking twists ensues.
Along the way, Mildred has angry encounters with a local priest who chides her to take down the billboards and move on, and proceeds through a complicated set of interactions with the sheriff that ultimately lead to forgiveness and emotional growth for her but shocking results for him.
The most intriguing relationship is between Mildred and a violent, racist cop (Sam Rockwell), who has to find a way to redeem himself after he goes on a rampage and loses his job.
Throughout, she encounters a colorful array of characters that make this movie seem like a lost classic from the Coen Brothers. McDonagh specializes in movies that deal with moral conflicts centered around bursts of intense violence, but as unsettling as the violence depicted can be, it’s worth noting that he’s one of the few filmmakers who actually shows the impact of violence in all its ugly reality.
“Billboards” takes an extremely dark and sad premise — that of a mother seeking justice after an unimaginable loss — and turns it into a powerful exploration of justice, forgiveness, and second chances. Yet he also manages to find wickedly funny moments in the quirky details of his characters, their locations and their turns of speech, with some of the best monologues this side of “Bull Durham.”
McDormand is a force of nature here, by turns feisty with fury and crushed by loss. But Harrelson might have pulled off the performance of his career and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar with his depiction of a lawman who seems to be heartlessly sexist at the beginning but reveals himself to be so much more as the film goes on.
These two are matched note for note by Rockwell in one of the most complex characterizations of the macho mindset and corrupt cops that have ever graced the screen. Viewers will not see a single moment of his character’s actions coming, and it’s a performance for the ages.
I’m calling it now: “Three Billboards” will be nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor for both Rockwell and Harrelson, Best Director and, yes, Best Picture. It’s hands-down the film to beat this year for quality and classic status. Grade: A
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp
Length: 115 minutes
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
This remake of the 1974 Oscar-winning hit movie and depiction of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel is superb filmmaking on every imaginable level: the score, cinematography and performances are all stunning. The final twist is also thoroughly unexpected, while also lending the film a gravitas that most Hollywood mysteries lack. A major contender for this year’s Oscars. Grade: A
DADDY’S HOME 2
Stars: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow
Length: 100 minutes
Directed by: Sean Anders
This sequel to the 2015 smash follows Ferrell and Wahlberg as a father and stepfather who overcame their comical competition for their kids’ attention. This time, they’re ridiculously close friends, but the arrival of Wahlberg’s macho monster dad (Gibson) and Ferrell’s touchy-feely father (Lithgow) creates new, fairly hilarious complications. A lot of great subtle commentaries on the state of families and our obsession with cellphones amid the slapstick. Grade: B
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston
Length: 130 minutes
Directed by: Taika Waititi
The third in the “Thor” trilogy is an utter blast, cranking up the action and laugh lines to nonstop entertaining levels that make this better than the first two combined. Star Chris Hemsworth should be an interantional superstar, period, but this is a showcase of swaggering movie stardom at its finest. Cate Blanchett adds fun evil to the mix as the sister he has to team up with brother Loki to bring down. Grade: A
BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS
Stars: Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christine Baranski
Length: 104 minutes
Directed by: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
This sequel to the surprise 2016 hit about suburban moms who decided to rebel against the demands of perfection tones some of the original’s excessive raunch down while adding some heartfelt moments. The arrivals of ace veterans Baranski, Cheryl Hines and Susan Sarandon as the moms they have conflicts with elevates this to make it one of the funniest movies of the year. Grade: A
THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto
Length: 115 minutes
Directed by: Sean Baker
This Sundance Film Fest favorite follows an aimless summer in the lives of a group of young kids in Orlando who live in a cheap motel without much supervision except from the motel manager, played by Dafoe in an amiably winning performance. A ramshackle slice of life that shows you a side of American society rarely depicted in films. Grade: B