Blending humor and drama is a particularly difficult task. Striking a well-tuned balance between two wholly dissimilar affective responses is a dangerous undertaking, one that more often than not makes for a mishmash of broken identity. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Is it neither? Those are the perennial questions that plague the sophisticated tightrope act. It’s never an easy outing and one that is precariously uncertain in the final outcome.
But every once in awhile, there comes a filmmaker that seems more fundamentally inclined to the amalgamation. It seems that these dramedy directors understand the existential thread that runs through both genres, sensing that the two are indeed a natural, albeit difficult, fit. After all, how can one live through the heartaches of life without a humorous outlook? The saying that laughter is the best medicine is indeed true for many, making even the hardest of pains seem less heavy and overwhelming—a quality that the Academy Award-winning Martin McDonagh effortlessly understands.
From his Oscar-winning short film Six Shooter (2004) to his wondrously smart In Bruges (2008), McDonagh has made a name for himself tackling the taboo, the unsavory, and the morally grotesque—all with a strong sense of humor that is often of a gut-busting quality. The same can be said of his award-winning plays, which often tackle issues of systematic violence, social etiquette, political correctness, and other oft-unspoken topics. But what is most attractive about McDonagh’s works is not the fact that he seamlessly blends tragic events with comedic tones. It is the fact that he does so with an artful precision that few other filmmakers seem to have the penchant of showcasing.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a sharp, incisive and charming single divorced mother who painfully mourns the loss of her daughter Angela to a brutal rape. It has been seven months since her passing and yet the police have yet to find any clues or leads that would lead to the capture of her assailant(s). Mildred has grown furious at the Ebbing police department’s lack of progress in the investigation, leading her to publicly shame them through a series of billboards, putting the brunt of the blame on Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Soon enough, the police and townspeople grow increasingly irate at the incendiary billboards, with the racist buffoon of a cop, Jason Dixon (brilliantly played by Sam Rockwell) leading much of the charge.
Many believed that perhaps McDonagh had fallen off his usual streak of masterful films with the rather lackluster Seven Psychpaths (2012). And that’s not to say that Seven Psychopaths was a bad film—on the contrary, it is a uniquely smart, postmodernist picture that played with conventions like few of his other films do. But one cannot ignore that Seven Psychpaths is undoubtedly McDonagh’s weakest filmic work. Thankfully, McDonagh has returned stronger than ever, reaching his peak level of ingenuity and tantalizing storytelling.
It’s a classic McDonagh-esque narrative that has all the audacious violence, ethical middle grounds and sickening laughs that viewers know and love from the British director. Whether it is the whip-smart dialogue or the grotesquely modernist violence, McDonagh pulls out all the stops to showcase his directorial cabinet of curiosities. But while his previous films walked the tightrope between gut-busting comedy and thought-provoking drama, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri expands that narrow margin into a twelve-lane highway. Never has McDonagh been able to construct such a beautiful oscillation between side-splitting laughter and emotional characterizations, save perhaps for his first foray into filmmaking with his Oscar-winning short, Shooter.
And that wonderful amalgamation of two opposing genres is squarely thanks to Sam Rockwell’s spell-binding performance as the racist and incompetent cop, Jason Dixon. Viewers are initially made to believe that this narrative is squarely a battle between Mildred Hayes and Sheriff Bill Willoughby, with Dixon acting as an auxiliary character. Instead, Rockwell’s enthralling performance is what draws viewers in and keeps them strapped in. It is perhaps one of the actor’s most memorable performances, up there with Moon (2009) and The Way, Way Back (2013). One scene in particular stands out as a masterful outing by the actor as he brashly and violently deals with his emotions through a paradigm-breaking long handheld take in an over the shoulder framing. It was an alluring and emotional moment, one that soundly established Rockwell as the true star of this film.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is yet another masterful outing by the playwright-turned-filmmaker, proving that few can blend dark humor and palpable humanism together as well as the London-born Irishman. Attention to detail, sharp dialogue, and multi-layered characterizations have always been McDonagh’s strong suit, but the filmmaker has elevated himself with his most recent endeavor surpassing even his near perfect In Bruges. Coupled with a star-studded cast (each of whom turn in career-high performances) and gritty Americana-inspired aesthetic, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri may prove to be yet another Oscar-winning success for McDonagh.