Anger, grief, hu­mor con­verge in ‘Bill­boards’

The Mercury News Weekend - - A+E - By RandyMy­ers Cor­re­spon­dent

Whether his cre­ative ex­pres­sion takes the blood-spat­tered form of screen­play or stage play, you can al­ways count on writer- di­rec­tor Martin McDon­agh to put you through an emo­tional and ex­is­ten­tial wringer.

He’ll chal­lenge your stead­fast no­tions about what’s right, what’s wrong. He’ll make you squirmin your seats. And then he’ll make you laugh un­con­trol­lably and un­com­fort­ably.

Ex­pect that and more from McDon­agh’s lat­est sting­ing tri­umph, “Three Bill­boards Out­side Eb­bing, Mis­souri,” a bleak, all- out bril­liant pitch-black com­edy that taps the raw nerve of Amer­ica’s re­venge-fueled zeit­geist with its un­pre­dictable nar­ra­tive about how a mom’s quest to avenge her mur­dered daugh­ter up­ends a town. It’s one of 2017’s best films.

It’s also one of McDon­agh’s finest works. That’s say­ing a lot since the Bri­tish-Ir­ish film­maker is one of our great­est liv­ing sto­ry­tellers, from the ex­cep­tional “In Bruges” with Bren­dan Gleeson and Colin Far­rell and the un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated “Seven Psy­chopaths” to the shock­ing play “The Pil­low­man,” among oth­ers.

As with all his movies, “Three Bill­boards” is su­perbly cast. Frances McDor­mand nes­tles deep into the hard-shelled soul of Mil­dred Hayes, a woman seething with fury over the loss of her daugh­ter who was raped, mur­dered and set on fire. It’s a role few, if any, could play with the un­wa­ver­ing com­mit­ment and in­ten­sity of McDor­mand; it adds one more ex­cla­ma­tion point to her ac­com­plished ca­reer.

Mil­dred is out­raged that there is no vi­able sus­pect and de­cides to put up three bill­boards that mock small-town po­lice chief Wil­liam Wil­loughby ( Woody Har­rel­son) and his squad. The move nee­dles dense, good-old­boy deputy Dixon (Sam Rock­well), an in­se­curemess of aman still liv­ing with a spite­ful mom who finds im­mense plea­sure in goad­ing

her son into acts of vi­o­lence. Rock­well nails his char­ac­ter, and has the film’s tough­est chal­lenge, as Dixon un­der­goes changes. Os­car vot­ers, pay at­ten­tion to what Rock­well ac­com­plishes so adroitly here.

The me­dia, of course, catches wind of the sen­sa­tional bill­boards, and while that at­ten­tion puts the fo­cus on Mil­dred and Wil­liam, who is har­bor­ing a painful secret of his own. Cre­at­ing more headaches is Mil­dred’s abu­sive ex Char­lie (John Hawkes), who blus­ters about on the side­lines. The cou­ple’s teen-age son Rob­bie (Lu­cas Hedges, a bit wasted here) acts con­tin­u­ally ex­as­per­ated, and is the­most sta­ble of any of the char­ac­ters.

The setup pro­motes an Old West- like show­down in which the law and a per- son gone rogue square off. But McDon­agh flicks aside the crowd-pleas­ing ob­vi­ous­ness of that. He’s pur­su­ing a more com­plex nar­ra­tive ter­rain and that’s re­flected, once again, in his mul­ti­di­men­sional char­ac­ters, all of whom ex­ist in a gray moral ter­ri­tory.

As you prob­a­bly as­sumed, there is no hero to root for in “Three Bill­boards.” Even Mil­dred. That’s ap­pro­pri­ate. McDon­agh re­al­izes there are many Mil­dreds, flawed sur­vivors deal­ing with the bru­tal­ity that life’s thrown at them and try­ing to muf­fle the aching lonely pain that is eat­ing away at them.

Sound too bleak? For some, per­haps. But in McDon­agh’s care­ful hands, it’s a Cirque du Soleil-like tightrope walk, grace­fully bal­anc­ing the har­row­ing with the hu­mor­ous. Only a hand­ful of writ­ers or film­mak­ers would dare to do what he does with “Three Bill­boards.”

FOX SEARCHLIGHT

Both Sam Rock­well, left, as a in­ept po­lice of­fi­cer and Frances McDor­mand as a griev­ing mother could be look­ing at Os­car nom­i­na­tions for their per­for­mances in “Three Bill­boards Out­side Eb­bing, Mis­souri.”

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