All signs point to Oscar

Three Billboards is loaded with award-worthy performances

Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. Directed by Martin McDonagh. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas, Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.
Rated 5.0

The new film by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) is fully loaded, front and back. The oddball-sounding title—Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—signals its offbeat tendencies as well as its plain-spoken boldness, and the marquee names at the top of the cast list (Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, etc.) set the tone for the lively gallery of quirky characterizations and vivid performances that propel the story.

The eponymous billboards are the work of one Mildred Hayes (McDormand), the grief-scarred mother of a teenage daughter who was raped and murdered. The better part of a year afterward, the police have made no discernible progress with the case, and the aggrieved mother decides to rent the long-neglected billboards and have them emblazoned with a message asking local police chief (Harrelson) for an explanation.

The billboards succeed in renewing the murder investigation, but a great deal more than that gets stirred to contentious life in the process. Police Chief Willoughby, of course, doesn’t appreciate that kind of calling out, but his story also has some ongoing complications of its own, as does that of dimwitted deputy Jason Dixon (Rockwell). The murder mystery continues in Three Billboards, but with a small multitude of little, but equally urgent dramas, public and private, running alongside.

While they’re ostensibly sympathetic to Mildred’s loss, the local townsfolk don’t take kindly to the billboards or to criticism of their esteemed police chief. Among those most irritated by the billboards is Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), a former cop who now sports a ditzy 19-year-old girlfriend (Samara Weaving). Among those caught in the highly fraught emotional crossfire are Robbie (an excellent Lucas Hedges), Mildred’s loyal, late-teens son, and “the town midget,” a car salesman (Peter Dinklage) whose tentative admiration of Mildred becomes more than she can handle.

Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby is a family man, with two kids and a wife (Abbie Cornish) who’s smart, pretty and well-spoken. Rockwell’s farcically brutish deputy lives alone with his mother (Sandy Martin), a sedentary chunk of malice who might have been a cheerleader for lynch mobs in her younger days.

The youthfully erratic Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the current proprietor of the town’s billboard business, becomes a particularly dramatic victim of the ensuing “collateral damage.” A carefully groomed desk sergeant (Zeljko Ivanek) is the main approximation of a voice of reason within the increasingly crazed circus of the Ebbing Police Department. A briskly effective government agent (Clarke Peters) arrives to restore order, but just how much he or anybody else can do to fully resolve these matters remains very much in doubt.

The film’s assorted dramas—of revenge, redemption, lethal innocence and unappeased guilt, madness and devotion—converge ultimately in the contrasting characters and stories of Mildred and Jason. McDormand and Rockwell give the best performances in this very well-acted film, and since Three Billboards is a movie that consistently and persistently refused to settle into the satisfactions and resolutions that its audiences have reason to hope for, the nuances, inflections and deflections of those two characterizations emerge as the chief reward here.