billboardIf the multiverse theory is to be believed then it must stand to reason that somewhere, there’s a universe that exists where Frances McDormand can’t act her way out of a soggy paper bag, where she might appear in a commercial for bagels and fail to convince the audience, and potential new consumers of bagels, that she’s a woman who enjoys bagels. Meanwhile, in this universe, she can absolutely do no wrong and she isn’t about to start here. Now where are the bagels?

McDormand plays Mildred, a mother still grieving for her daughter who was abducted, raped, and killed in the months before the movie starts. The crime remains unsolved and, suspecting that the local police force could be doing more if only they could stop beating up black people for five minutes, she rents out three forgotten and dilapidated billboards on a quiet road on the outskirts of town and uses them to display a set of messages that grab the attention of Chief Willoughby (admirably played by Woody Harrelson) and his underling Dixon (Sam Rockwell), the latter of which in particular doesn’t take too kindly to these developments.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, you kinda know what you’re going to get before the lights have dimmed. The characters and their development are just as important as the arc of the storyline, the script is going to be crisp and pin-point and jut ooze with black humor, and there’s going to be enough buckets of swearing to make Malcolm Tucker, and possibly even Chris Tucker, blush.

As good as the script is, as gorgeous as the scenery is (filmed in California rather than Missouri, fact fans), and as magnificent as the performances from Harrelson and Rockwell are, it’s Frances McDormand’s movie. Every little flinch, each throwaway motion of picking a nail with her teeth, every reaction to another letdown or attempt to reach out to her teenaged son, well, she’s simply perfect. The emotion she carries through the couple of hours running time has such heft and thickness and is never overdone. Tellingly, she makes it look easy.

The movie as a whole does suffer somewhat from a strained — and perhaps even ill-judged — redemption arc for Rockwell’s detestable racist cop, an oddly-phrased section from a news reporter who seemed to be channeling Alicia Silverstone from Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, an Australian accent that couldn’t stand out more supposing it was falling out of Quentin Tarentino’s mouth, and an act of outrageous violence that somehow manages to avoid sufficient consequences. There’s so much good stuff going on, though, that these crimes are (just about) forgivable.

2017 had movies I enjoyed more — The Shape of Water, for starters, and I genuinely don’t think I saw anything better than Paddington 2 in the last twelve months, but in this universe right here, there’s more than enough in Three Billboards to enjoy and some performances that in years to come will still be genuinely savored.