Chuck Koplinski: Performances, sharp writing propel 'Three Billboards'

Chuck Koplinski: Performances, sharp writing propel 'Three Billboards'

There's a righteous anger propelling Martin McDonagh's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," and it doesn't pertain simply to the plight of its main character, grieving mother Mildred Hayes.

While her fury is wholly justified, the writer/director is speaking to greater concerns than simply one person's ire, addressing as well the sense of moral outrage so many of us are feeling in response to a world that's gone mad, where truth is no longer valued, criminals not only go free but prosper and basic social niceties have gone the way of the dinosaur. "Three Billboards" is a timely primal scream of a movie that will resonate with viewers in ways they won't anticipate.

Frustrated by the lack of progress being made in the investigation of her teen daughter's death, Hayes (Frances McDormand) takes matters into her own hands. Renting three billboards leading into the titular town, she takes the local authorities to task with successive messages that read: "Raped While Dying," "And Still No Arrests," "How Come, Chief Willoughby?"

Needless to say, this does not sit will with the aforementioned police chief (Woody Harrelson), a genuinely good man who has followed investigative procedure, followed up on leads and come up empty where suspects to this heinous crime are concerned. Equally upset by this public calling out is his faithful deputy, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-witted blowhard that wields his authority with impunity, never giving a second thought to physically abusing suspects.

The film examines the ripple effects of Hayes' act, some of it predictable, some of it unexpected but plausible. The commonality all the characters, among them Hayes' abusive ex Charlie (John Hawkes) and her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), share is that a tragedy has befallen all of them, yet their reaction to the trauma they've suffered varies wildly. A few allow their rage to consume them, one decides to make amends in the face of crisis, while another becomes an agent of change.

Credit McDonagh's script with not just some of the best dialogue you'll hear in a film this year but with well-drawn, varied characters whose flaws are relatable. While each of them is suffering, they all refuse to let their troubles defeat them, a commendable trait that's all too rare.

Characters such as these are the sort actors love to tackle, so it's no wonder McDonagh was able to assemble the veteran cast he did. Oscar talk for McDormand and Rockwell sprang up early in the year when "Three Billboards" was making the film festival circuit, and it's easy to see why. (The mystery is why Harrelson hasn't been mentioned in this conversation ...) These three know that while they may be playing larger-than-life characters, it's vital that their humanity be present as well. The trio succeeds in doing just that and as a result, anchor the film in reality, preventing these people from becoming too outlandish, which could have easily happened in lesser hands.

McDonagh's script contains two flaws in its logic that I just can't get around, but they're not so great that they undermine the entire film. And while its structure nearly collapses after a shocking act that begins its second hour, the work of the cast and the compelling nature of the problems the characters face keep it all together.

Its saving grace is the ending McDonagh provides, an unconventional yet wholly realistic conclusion that may frustrate some, yet is perfectly sound as it refuses to pander and offers a pat answer to the complex questions the movie poses.

'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' (★★★½ out of four)

Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Zeliko Ivanek and Malaya Rivera Drew.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh; produced by Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin and McDonagh.

A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. 115 minutes. Rated R (violence, language and sexual situations). At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

Stars of "Lady Bird" soar (★★★★ out of four). Tell me if you've heard this one — a teenage girl, feeling lost and misunderstood, goes to a new high school where her feelings of isolation are assuaged a bit when she meets and becomes friends with a fellow outsider.

Over the course of the school year, she meets her first love, finds herself attracted to the resident bad boy and abandons her friend in favor of someone in a higher social strata. During this time, our heroine dreams of going to a faraway college so that she can escape from her domineering, disapproving mother.

There's nothing new storywise where Greta Gerwig's directorial debut "Lady Bird" is concerned, yet the magic of the film is that somehow it seems that we are seeing it, if not for the first time, then with a sense of discovery. There's a light about the titular character, whose given name is Christine, that we hope isn't crushed by circumstance, self-doubt or one bad decision. We see the passion, the potential and the curiosity within her and end up hoping and praying that this vital young woman gets her chance.

The empathy we feel toward Lady Bird is due in large part to the ebullient performance of Saoirse Ronan. The similarities between Christine and her character Elise in "Brooklyn" are obvious, but the actress' approach to each role couldn't be more different.

Being quiet and reserved is not part of Lady Bird's makeup, and Ronan brings a ferocity to the part that's indicative of an impulsive woman her age who acts without thinking and ultimately comes to regret her actions. The actress is real in every moment of the movie, never more so than when she's begging her mother Marion for her forgiveness over something she should never have to apologize for.

As the domineering matriarch of the McPherson clan, Laurie Metcalf brings a realism to the role that's spot on. You've met women like Marion before — always a bit frantic, ever the martyr, nothing out of her mouth but complaints or passive-aggressive criticism — the kind of woman who means well but leaves misery, which she's happy to have caused, in her wake. The actress inhabits the role like a second skin, and it's to her credit that Marion doesn't come off as a one-note villain but rather a woman who had her own hopes and dreams. She does want Lady Bird to succeed, but on her terms, not her daughter's, which proves to be her fatal flaw.

There are so many moments of pure delight, as well as bracing reality in this movie due to Gerwig's witty script and subtle direction. This is never more evident than in the work of Tracy Letts in the role of Lady Bird's put-upon father Larry. Out of work and browbeaten by Marion, he knows exactly what his role is in the family, and dutifully retreats most of the time. That he stands up when his daughter needs him most is one of the film's most satisfying moments.

There's never a scene that feels calculated or rushed, never a line reading that seems less than honest or heartfelt. These characters and their lives have a lived-in feel to them that prevents the film from seeming like just another coming-of-age story.

Everyone involved put a bit of their soul into their work, and it shows, all of which contributes to making "Lady Bird" one of the best films of 2017.

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