You don't need a calendar to know the holiday movie season has arrived. Just check the listings for your local multiplex and you'll find a large portion of the serious, awards-minded films Hollywood has to offer, all released during the roughly five-week period from Thanksgiving to Christmas. That's the time of year deemed safe to present films with darker themes and complex emotions in hopes of finding a receptive audience.
With its story of a strong but grief-stricken mother goading the local sheriff to find the man who raped and killed her teenage daughter, playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh's powerful Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri fits the profile. But unlike last year's Manchester by the Sea and 2015's Spotlight — fall releases with difficult themes that won big at the Academy Awards — Three Billboards adds sudden bursts of violence and offbeat humor to the mix — with varied results.
As the story begins, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) struggles with her grief, guilt and frustration seven months after her daughter's murder. She leases three billboards to send a message to sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) about his perceived inaction on a case growing colder by the day.
By taking on Willoughby, Mildred also finds herself in opposition to officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and an entire small town that holds the sheriff in high regard. It's a set-up that intentionally recalls classic Westerns (McDormand says she used John Wayne as a model for Mildred), even as the story finds its own unpredictable path.
McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths) wrote Mildred expressly for McDormand, and she inhabits the role like she was born to play it. At 60, McDormand has become a female counterpart to the late Harry Dean Stanton, a beloved actor who (didn't break out until age 58) and brought authenticity and truth to every film in which he appeared.
It's no surprise that McDormand is currently favored to win her second Best Actress Oscar (after Fargo) for Three Billboards. A scene in which she schools the local clergyman on the meaning of culpability (and hypocrisy) surely ranks among the year's most memorable. It will be interesting to see if Hollywood can come up with roles for a woman openly comfortable in her sexagenarian skin.
Harrelson handles the multifaceted sheriff with predictable grace, and Rockwell manages to develop a character that begins on shaky ground as the stereotypically dim-witted, small-town police officer. As Mildred's son Robbie, Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird) cements his status as the go-to guy for late–teen characters of every possible type. Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) also plays a local guy hopelessly smitten with Mildred.
McDonagh deserves some credit for trying to balance his big-screen meditation on loss and forgiveness with black humor, but even the funniest moments sometimes seem awkward or out of place. It appears the writer-director is still working on a smooth transition from theater to film. Though beautifully written, his Three Billboards screenplay features some lines of too-articulate dialogue that would seem more at home onstage than on screen. The best screenplays (such as Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird) capture the way real people actually talk to one another, which is harder than it sounds.
Like Lady Bird, Three Billboards benefits from good timing. In a new era when issues of gender equality have taken an overdue spotlight, there can't be enough strong female characters driving Hollywood films.