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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
The audacious act of a bereaved mother
Frances McDormand plays Mildred, an embittered mother who has lost her daughter after she was raped and murdered - a crime which remains unsolved. Having become estranged from her abusive husband Charlie (John Hawkes), she lives with her young adult son Robbie (Lucas Hedges).
One day, on a rarely-used entrance road to her hometown of Ebbing, she spots three vacant billboards. She hits upon an idea approaches advertiser Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) with a $5000 downpayment to place notices on them asking why local the sheriff named Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) hasn’t even made any arrests since her daughter’s brutal slaying.
The billboards quickly attract the attention of the police, the local media and the citizens of the small town. However, the strain of this sudden focus is difficult for Willoughby - a decent, well-meaning family man who is ailing from cancer. Moreover, Willoughby’s perpetually angry deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is particularly riled up by Mildred’s continued insinuations that the local police force is more interested in beating up black people than solving her daughter’s murder.
The whole affair triggers off a spiral of emotional moments, misunderstandings and violent acts.
Watch a trailer:
A surefire Oscar winner?
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won four Golden Globes and is likely to attract similar attention come Oscar night. It seems to be a further mark of a change of direction in the past couple of years where the notoriously complacent and conservative Hollywood awards season is finally taking some risks. A film that, while it touches on some modern issues, isn’t a blatant issue movie per se! A film with a few surprises up its sleeve and the potential to offend the more prudish audience members via Martin McDonagh’s somewhat coarse sense of humour! While it’s certainly a film worthy of awards, it doesn’t feel like a film which is contrived towards winning awards.
The underrated Ms McDormand
At the very centre of the film is Frances McDormand. Despite several Oscar nominations and one win (the 1997 award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in Fargo) she has remained a somewhat underestimated actress by most filmmakers whose names aren’t Ethan and Joel Coen (the latter of whom has remained her real-life husband since 1984). Over the years she has frequently been relegated to supporting roles, occasionally in such unworthy films as Aeon Flux, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. This state of affairs has occurred arguably because, regardless of her highly individual talent as an actress, she has such an unglamorous image. Here, she fits absolutely perfectly into the film.
Her character, while affording some sympathy from the audience due to the loss of her daughter and abusive experiences from her ex-husband, is far from saintly. She’s seething with undercurrents of rage which all-too-frequently propel her into rash actions. She’s obnoxious and somewhat immature to everyone from her own son to members of the police department and, quite frankly, only escapes censure thanks to the goodwill extended towards her by the townsfolk for her loss.
However, in common with the rest of the film, her sad demeanour is tempered with moments of hilarity. Many of these are hilariously profane and a number of them feature in the trailer. Unlike a lot of films, however, their appearance out-of-context in the trailer doesn’t spoil their impact when watching the full film afterwards. Since they spring out of a complex situation which has got out of hand they don’t feel like they have been inserted for their own sake.
A credible supporting cast
While McDormand is the undoubted star here, the other performers hold their own rather well on screen with her. Woody Harrelson is one of those actors who has gradually improved over the years; here, he plays an infinitely more laid-back but equally pitiable counterpart to McDormand’s Mildred as a man who knows his days are numbered but tries to do the best with what little he has. Sam Rockwell is almost as boisterously entertaining as Dixon, a rather uncouth and undutiful police officer who seems to be the film’s main antagonist - beating up one hapless character an a scene of violence that is, in one breath, hilarious and almost unbearably intense. However, his character arc is deepened considerably as it takes a surprising turn later on. Even some of the actors cast in smaller parts have their moments when they shine - Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones) as a town midget who winds up on a disastrous dinner date with Mildred, Clarke Peters as an authority figure who finally puts Dixon in his place.
Martin McDonagh’s writing and direction proves that the promise of his earlier In Bruges was no fluke. He has an auteur-like flair for visuals (the titular billboards are an ominous feature placed within the rolling Missouri landscapes) as well as soundtrack placement (Dixon’s earphones frequently drown out the background noise courtesy of music by Abba and the like). His characters, for all of their faults, are multifaceted and undeniably human. The action sequences are loaded with carefully built-up tension.
It all adds up to an Oscar nod film which you should watch out of the pleasure of doing so, rather an as an annual duty. Dear Academy, please, please continue your path to regaining credibility by handing McDormand that long-overdue second golden statuette this year.
Runtime: 115 mins
Dir: Martin McDonagh
Script: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Francis McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters