61°F
weather icon Partly Cloudy

‘Three Billboards’ is one of the year’s best films

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is filled with more surprises than its title has syllables.

One in particular, though, stands out.

You expect a movie to be good, if not superb, when it stars Frances McDormand as a mother who takes on the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) and his petulant underling (Sam Rockwell) after months have passed without an arrest for the rape and murder of her teenage daughter.

What you don’t expect it to be is funny.

Delightful even.

Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is driving home one day when she spots three dilapidated billboards in a row, pulls over to the side of the road and hatches a plan. Hardly anyone has used Drinkwater Road since the highway was built. The billboards’ owner (Caleb Landry Jones) wasn’t even aware they existed. Yet Mildred negotiates a one-year lease on all three and has her message put up on Easter Sunday like a grim Burma-Shave triptych: “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests,” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

The outrage is immediate.

In an attempt to quiet the uproar in Ebbing, the beloved Willoughby (Harrelson) visits Mildred and explains that he’d love nothing more than to solve the crime, but there were no witnesses, the recovered DNA didn’t match anyone in the system, and sometimes there just aren’t any leads. Then he reveals he’s dying of pancreatic cancer, a fact she admits she already knew.

“And you still put up those billboards?” a dazed Willoughby asks.

“Well,” Mildred tells him, “they wouldn’t be as effective after you croak.”

Mildred isn’t exactly what you’d call likable. She’s a wrathful dynamo who channels her grief into an escalating battle with Willoughby and Officer Dixon (Rockwell) that seemingly only she wants.

She is, however, a hoot.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”), “Three Billboards” is one of the year’s best films. It’s also what I imagine “Fried Green Tomatoes” would have been like if it were just a couple of hours of Kathy Bates’ character ramming into other people’s cars.

Despite the conflict, there’s a mutual respect between Mildred and Willoughby, to whom Harrelson lends decency, weariness and unexpected wisdom.

As Dixon, the hotheaded drunk who lives with his Mama and has a well-earned reputation for harassing African-Americans, Rockwell brings depth and complexity to what could have been a one-dimensional hayseed. It’s a role that should finally land the underappreciated actor an Oscar nomination.

In 115 minutes, McDonagh makes tiny Ebbing feel like a quirky, fully realized town in ways that it takes TV series such as David E. Kelley’s “Picket Fences” or Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” entire seasons. Along with Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” it’s one of my favorite scripts this year.

Supporting players — including used-car salesman James (Peter Dinklage), Mildred’s ex (John Hawkes) and his 19-year-old girlfriend (Samara Weaving) — drop in for a few moments yet create more memorable characters than many movies could muster if they were the leads.

As that lead, McDormand is well on her way to a fifth Oscar nomination as the caustic, confrontational Mildred, who is so consumed with bringing her daughter’s killer to justice, she can’t even be bothered to change out of the denim jumpsuit she wears like a soldier’s uniform.

Some of “Three Billboards’ ” plot developments are a bit convenient. And at times, McDonagh’s dialogue is too perfect, momentarily reminding viewers that they’re watching a movie, albeit an unforgettable one.

A film whose biggest flaw is that it’s occasionally too clever?

That’s yet another surprise in a movie that’s overflowing with them.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Entertainment Videos
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Smith & Wollensky opens at The Venetian
After 18 years, the Smith & Wollensky location on Las Vegas’ south Strip closed in 2017, to be re-born two years later with a rib-cutting — instead of a ribbon-cutting — in The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal)
Colin Cantwell, Creator Of Iconic Star Wars Ships Visits Vegas
Colin Cantwell, who created and designed such "Star Wars" ships as the X-Wing fighter, and Death Star, met fans at Rogue Toys in Las Vegas today. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Beauty & Essex in Las Vegas makes an EDC Wonder Wheel
In honor of the Electric Daisy Carnival, Beauty & Essex at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas makes its Wonder Wheel party-worthy. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Giada talks Vegas Uncork’d
Giada De Laurentiis talks during Aperitivo Hour, a Vegas Uncork'd event, at her Caesars Palace restaurant, Pronto, May 10, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Scenes from Vegas Uncork’d 2019 on the Las Vegas Strip
The 13th edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit brought four days of food, wine, celebrity chefs and parties to town, May 9-12. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Three ingredients Gordon Ramsay can’t live without
Bon Appetit's Andy Baraghani interviews the "Hell's Kitchen" chef during a Vegas Uncork'd event at Caesars Palace, May 11, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vegas Uncork’d launches wiith bubbles and a blade
Dozens of chefs representing some of the Strip’s top restaurants gathered Thursday at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas to launch the 2019 edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bunky the Clown at the clown convention
Bob "Bunky the Clown" Gretton talks about his life as a clown and the Clown Convention which was in Las Vegas at Texas Station this week. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Frying soft-shell crab at Lola’s in Las Vegas
At Lola’s: A Louisiana Kitchen in Las Vegas, soft-shell crab is breaded and fried and served either as an appetizer, po’boy or platter. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
The Stove in Henderson makes Pecan Pie Pancakes
At The Stove in Henderson, chef/partner Antonio Nunez stacks buttermilk pancakes with pecans and dulce de leche and tops them pie crust crumbs. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vinnie Paul remembered at Count's Vamp'd
The late rocker's favorite table at one of his favorite clubs in Las Vegas. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
4DX movie experience at Red Rock
4DX movie experience during a demo reel at Red Rock. (Christopher Lawrence/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
What To Do On May The 4th
There are plenty of events going on May the 4th this year around Las Vegas. Celebrate Star Wars and Comic Book Day all at once. The Rogue Toys, the 501st, Rebel Legion and Millennium Fandom Bar are all hosting fun events to help celebrate your geek-dom. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Water Sports Introduces New Attraction At Lake Las Vegas
Las Vegas Water Sports will debut its new aqua park attraction at Lake Las Vegas Days this weekend. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Making the Space Invader at Greene St. Kitchen in Las Vegas
Lysa Huerta, pastry cook at Greene St. Kitchen at the Palms in Las Vegas, starts with angel food cake, Fruity Pebbles ice cream and strawberry sorbet to create a space creature engulfed in flashing lights and swirling mists. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Pools
The M, Park MGM and NoMad are just a few great pools in Las Vegas. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jose Andres explains Iberico pork
(Al Mancini/Las Vega Review-Journal)
Inside Life is Beautiful
Craig Asher Nyman explains how Life is Beautiful festival is booked and talks about this year's line-up. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America Pops Up In Vegas
Tattoo'd America, a new pop-up attraction on the Linq Promenade, had their grand opening Friday. The attraction is dedicate to the culture of tattoos. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Jose Andres gets key to the Strip
Chef Jose Andres was presented with a Key to the Las Vegas Strip and a proclamation declaring April 26 Jose Andres Day in Clark County by County Commissioner Tick Segerblom on Friday. The ceremony took place at his restaurant Bazaar Meat in the SLS Las Vegas. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sadelle’s in Las Vegas makes a grilled cheese with an inverted bagel
Michael Vargas, executive sous chef at Sadelle’s at Bellagio in Las Vegas, inverts an everything bagel and grills it with Swiss, cheddar and Muenster cheeses to make the Inverted Bagel Grilled Cheese. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures
Kassandra Lopez at Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures. (Janna Karel/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Prime rib is carved tableside at Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Las Vegas
Dave Simmons, executive chef of Lawry’s The Prime in Las Vegas, which plans special cuts for National Prime Rib Day, demonstrates the restaurant’s service from rolling tableside carving carts. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Making gluten-free pizza at Good Pie in Las Vegas
Good Pie owner/pizzaiola Vincent Rotolo makes his gluten-free pizza.
Rockabilly fans enjoy Las Vegas weather poolside
Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender runs Thursday, April 18th through Sunday, April 21st with a huge car show on Saturday featuring The Reverend Horton Heat, The Delta Bombers and The Coasters. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Brownie sundae at VegeNation in Las Vegas is completely vegan
Donald Lemperle, chef/owner of VegeNation in Las Vegas and nearby Henderson, NV, makes his sundae with ice cream made with coconut and almond milks, a brownie made with coconut flour and oil and organic sugar and cacao, and fresh fruit. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Taste of the Town: Henderson Booze District
Those who like to support local businesses and sample local products will find the best concentration in an unlikely spot: a Henderson industrial park.
Founder of Las Vegas theater talks about a favorite play
Ann Marie Pereth, founder of A Public Fit Theatre Company, speaks to the Review-Journal about which play she would see every day if only given one option. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST