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Brent Northup

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Myrna Loy


Grade: A

Frances McDormand’s mantel will soon be balanced: She’ll have an Oscar on both ends above the fireplace.

She won her first for “Fargo,” in which she played pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson – a lady cop with attitude.

Now she’s back as a cynical and vengeful mother in “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Will her portrayal of foul-mouthed Mildred win her another Oscar? You betcha!

The plot of “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is deadly serious. A young woman is killed, and raped while dying. The inept and perhaps bigoted cops, led by Chief Willoughby, seem unable and/or unwilling to solve the crime. Seven months later: no suspects.

So, Mildred, the furious mother, takes action. She drains her savings and sells possessions to rent three black-letters-on-red-background billboards outside the town of Ebbing, Missouri.

The billboards read, in order:

Raped while dying.

Still no arrests.

How come, Chief Willoughby?

The billboards enflame the cops, who set out to intimidate both Mildred and the young billboard salesman.

The cops play dirty. They threaten Mildred and arrest her friends. The billboard guy will be thrown out a second-floor window.

Mildred doubles down and charges straight at her intimidators: She’s a mother bear whose cub was viciously killed, and she will not be denied justice. Molotov cocktails in hand, she redecorates the police station.

How can such a story make us laugh? First, because of the in-your-face sassiness of McDormand igniting McDonagh’s incisive script. Her foul-mouthed defiance of the cops and the press is fearlessly funny.

My favorite line involves her attack on a TV reporter who is blaming Mildred for the town’s uproar. Pardon my French:

“Why don't you put that on your Good Morning Missouri f*** wake up broadcast, b***?”

The second source of humor has drawn justifiable criticism: the portrayal of a brutal racist cop as stupid and the steady stream of degrading language, including the N word for minorities, the R word for those with disabilities and the B word for women.

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The language coming from everyone’s mouth is blue, bordering on purple. Somehow, in the context of the cloistered world of a small narrow-minded town, the prose seems almost elegant, and often laugh-out-loud funny.

But good people will disagree with me.

The power in “Three Billboards” comes in the last act where the carefully cultivated stereotypes are shredded. One dirty cop turns courageous – and another seeks reconciliation.

And then mad mom misjudges and miscalculates.

Suddenly, everything is murky, setting the stage for an allegorical ending, which fades to black before the car reaches Idaho.

“Three Billboards” is very much a Coen Brothers-inspired movie, but one written and directed by Martin McDonagh, who has won an Oscar for a short film. It’s a product of the marriage of the darkly funny “Fargo” and the frighteningly violent “No Country for Old Men.”

The film could land a squad car full of acting nominations. Besides the shoo-in McDormand, Sam Rockwell is a lock for a Best Supporting nod as the bigoted cop. Woody Harrelson also may be honored for his layered portrayal of the chief of police.

And the film itself will land one of the nine or so Best Picture nominations. Bet your penny jar on that.

A few critics like Rex Reed are dismissing “Three Billboards” as “a Coen-brothers wannabe full of dumb jokes.”

That might have been justified were it not for the tales of redemption and reconciliation that emerge unexpectedly from underneath the cynical surface.

At that point, the film deepens as we begin regretting all the hasty attributions we gullibly swallowed in Act I.


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