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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Year: 2018
Production Co: Blueprint Pictures
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Director: Martin McDonagh
Producer: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes

Having established himself as the go-go guy for blacker then black comedy after In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths and The Guard, it feels a bit like Martin McDonagh wanted to out-black himself this time around. Despite enough laughs to qualify as a comedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri manages a delicate tight rope walk with scenes of deadly serious and at times very emotionally affecting import (including a firebombing, a suicide and a savage beating). The fact that such scenes exist in the same movie where a no-nonsense, boiler-suited woman kicks several teenagers in the crotch and plenty of funny lines is quite a feat.

The handling of such vastly different tones is done with a bit more certainty than it seems the script was written under, the story branching off into so many different directions and involving so many people (all of whom get the time to be fully fleshed-out) the title and marketing have been a little bit misleading. If you think it's the story of a cranky woman who tries to embarrass the local police into taking action on her daughter's murder, that doesn't cover the half of it.

McDormand is wonderful as the prickly Mildred, a mourning but straight-arrow country woman who doesn't seem to have a sentimental bone in her body, fixing people with a steely gaze and withering, profane putdowns not unlike the brilliantly acerbic characterisation of Tonya Harding's (Margot Robbie) mother by Allison Janney in I, Tonya.

It doesn't help that she's still mourning the rape and murder of her daughter a year before, and when it seems like the local constabulary have slackened off in their hunt for her daughter's killer, she takes the highly visible steps of the premise to try and gird them into action.

It puts Ebbing's smalltown police force (Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Willoughby and Sam Rockwell as racist dolt Dixon, among others) on the back foot, and Mildred's refusal to back down only sours relations all over town. Everyone from Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the advertising company proprieter who owns the billboards to Willougby's cute daughters and gorgeous wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) are affected by Mildred's actions and the fallout and ultimate violence they sow around town.

Even the above description by itself would be enough to fill a decent movie plot – the premise alone itself is something we've never seen before – but there's also Peter Dinklage as a local man who holds a candle for Mildred, John Hawkes as her violent ex husband, the African American guy who works for Welby maintaining the billboards and who's been on the receiving end of Dixon's racist contempt, Dixon's simpleton mother, Willoughby being a late stage cancer sufferer, a vandal trying to destory the billboards and what feels like a dozen other threads.

The movie only just manages to keep them all in the air, but it teeters on the edge of McDonagh overstretching himself, nothing really having a real point or theme (or even a major character) and just blending into everything else. Seven Psychopaths had the same problems, but The Guard and In Bruges were both terrific films that hit the exact mark McDonagh's reputation brings to mind. Maybe fish out of water buddy black comedy double acts are where he really shines.

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