TIFF Review: ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is Funny and Moving

Acclaimed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh broke into film with his brilliant and hilarious 2008 black comedy, In Bruges; starring Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes and Colin Farrell. The film about two Irish hit men (Farrell, Gleeson) hiding out in the titular Belgian town after a hit goes wrong; was sharp, profane, tragic, hilarious and seething with the emotional conflict that storytelling is all about. With Seven Psychopaths, he assembled a star-studded cast and delivered a solid film; his first set in America. While Seven Psychopaths was entertaining, it fell short compared to its predecessor.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a solid entry to Martin McDonagh’s growing filmography. It manages to recapture some of the heart and insight from In Bruges, this time beneath the backdrop of modern Americana. Sam Rockwell reunites with McDonagh to give a winning performance as Officer James Dixon. Rockwell’s performance is another testament to his massive talent, funny as all hell at the brightest moments; pure and internalized during the heavy ones. Keep an eye out for Frances McDormand come awards time for her role as Mildred Hayes. A grieving mother provoking the system all around her, Mildred is confident and fearless. McDormand is sublime.

Woody Harrelson gives a stellar performance as Sheriff Bill Willoughby, the victim of Mildred’s campaign. Harrelson effectively plays the multiple roles of father, husband, sheriff and patient with grace and wit. Having great banter with McDormand, Rockwell and others, Harrelson’s comedic chops are also on display. The whole cast engages one another with humour and chemistry. Caleb Landry Jones steals each scene he appears in, even when working against Sam Rockwell’s hilarity. Lucas Hedges is solid as Mildred’s son, Robbie. Peter Dinklage is great in his limited screen time.

The film, much like McDonagh’s other films, asks deep philosophical questions about civil justice, racism, ignorance and murder. McDonagh brings us to feel the rich colours of the emotional spectrum with moments that simultaneously show the best and worst of humanity. We see a domestic violence incident involving a butcher knife to someone’s throat with serious intent. In the blink of an eye; the scene reverts to stable conversation. McDonagh is able to make us root for characters that we know to have done horrible things. Ignorant, crude, insulting and bigoted things are said. Moments of human compassion and decency arise in the most interesting places; ultimately becoming a satisfying contrast to the mayhem of the story. Very moving. Very funny. Very real.

Rating: 4/5