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‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is a masterful tale of grief and redemption

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In his 2008 cult hit “In Bruges,” writer and director Martin McDonagh depicts two hitmen out on a contract in Bruges, Belgium. While the film never strays far from the macabre inevitability that someone is going to be murdered, the relationship between the two hitmen is akin to that of an old married couple trying to salvage their marriage by taking a vacation.

McDonagh takes this formula, combining morbidness and hilarity, and expands on it in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” with a brilliant cast, whose diverse -- but equally heartbreaking -- stories intertwine in a delightful black comedy.

At face value, “Three Billboards” is a film that weaves together the stories of several small-town Missourians around a single event, not unlike last year's Oscar-winning film “Manchester By the Sea.” However, instead of taking the insular concept of expanding on the impact of a small-town death on a community, “Three Billboards” gets much more metaphysical, grappling with the concepts of grief, mortality, pain and the legacy all of these things can leave behind.

It initially begins with a strange form of protest, when Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) purchases three billboards from advertiser Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones). Hayes had the billboards displaying different parts of a message that read “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests,” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”. This was to hold the police -- namely the police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) -- accountable for the lack of justice for Hayes’s daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) after she was murdered.

For approximately the first hour of the film, chief Willoughby and Hayes are at each other’s throats. Hayes wants to shift all the blame for her daughter’s death on Willoughby, while he is simultaneously trying to ensure Hayes that the Ebbing Police are doing everything they can, and sabotaging her billboard campaign against him. Hayes is an expert of witty humor, having a sharp rebuttal to every single line of dialogue uttered in her presence.

The film had enough energy to simply continue with this straightforward premise, but decides to turn the entire narrative on its head. The fact that the film’s trailers only made it as far as this initial premise plays to its advantage. Everything after the first hour is completely uncharted territory, constantly making the viewer wonder where they’ll be taken next.

McDonagh inserts dark humor with surgical precision, ensuring every bleak scene is paired with equally compelling comedy. From her impatience with the advertiser Red who rents out the billboards to her, to her overt contempt for the entire Ebbing Police Department, Hayes has something to say about everyone, mostly venomous.

“Three Billboards” is full of detailed character studies. Hayes has the fullest range of emotion: she displays everything from deep despair to pure elation -- usually at the expense of other people. Her cruelty toward others is only matched by the cruelty she has suffered herself. Her contentious relationships with her only surviving son and abusive ex-husband, along with her full-fledged war with the police shows that she is both a broken woman and a capable one.

While the death of Hayes's daughter serves as a sort of catalyst for the events of the film, Hayes isn’t the only protagonist. A significant amount of screen time is devoted to Chief Willoughby in his personal life, as well as his time babysitting his incompetent second-in-command Dixon (Sam Rockwell). The development of these two characters is unique in its own right. Very few characters in the film walk away unscathed, be it physically or emotionally.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a masterpiece. Martin McDonagh is able to intertwine the stories of several very different individuals and somehow fit them into some great puzzle. It stands strong on its surface, with great performances and outstanding humor, but what will make this film memorable is its ability to ask serious questions that go below the surface.

Grade: A

life@theeagleonline.com

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” was released in theaters November 17


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