It’s not difficult to see how Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, has gained seven Oscar nominations. It’s only difficult to see how it hasn’t gained more, because this is a simply superb film.
Frustrated by the lack of any police progress in finding out who raped and murdered her daughter, Mildred Hayes rents three billboards on a backroad within sight of her home – and near where the crime happened – to ask: “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?” and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”
TV takes note. The billboards upset some of the townspeople, including Sheriff Bill Willoughby and the racist, perpetually drunk officer Jason Dixon. Mildred and her son are harassed and threatened. A local priest tries to cow her.
Her ex-husband visits – his naive, 19-year-old girlfriend Penelope in tow – to blame her for their daughter’s death.
But Mildred won’t give in.
Willoughby is sympathetic and looks again at the case, but he’s dying of pancreatic cancer. After one last perfect day with his wife and two young daughters, he ends his own life.
Dixon, his anger bubbling over, hits out.
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an extraordinary film. Variously described as a ‘crime film’, a ‘tragicomedy’ and ‘darkly comic’, it is all those and far more.
There is a savage brutality about it – not just in some of the violence, which is never gratuitous – but also in the emotions of people struggling to deal with grief and loss and anger. That it never crosses into mawkishness or sentimentality is an incredible achievement.
The writing is superb. When Willoughby’s suicide letters to his wife, to Mildred and to Dixon are read by them (voiced by Woody Harrelson), they combine an earthiness with a poetic beauty that is searing.
Ben Davis’s cinematography is more than a match, giving us a sense of vast, natural beauty, yet with those three billboards as a constant jarring reminder that something far darker is at the root of all this.
The performances are exemplary.
In a strong supporting cast, Peter Dinklage as a friend of Mildred, Caleb Landry Jones as the ad agency rep and Samara Weaving as Penelope, are all excellent.
Harrelson and Sam Rockwell as Willoughby and Dixon respectively, are both up for supporting actor Oscars. It’s hard to know who you’d pick.
But Frances McDormand is simply outstanding as Mildred. The anger, the pain and the guilt are raw; constantly etched across her face, yet so subtly conveyed. It is a blistering turn and it’s almost impossible to imagine that she will not take home her second golden statue come March.
Three Billboards is about flawed human beings struggling with their demons. They don’t overcome all their flaws, but somewhere in the darkness, McDonagh’s magnificent work suggests that humans can grow; that redemption and release from the pain are possible.
And throughout, there are little notes to suggest that the cycle of life goes on: flowers and a young deer are just two.
If there’s a moral here, it’s in Penelope’s adage, memorised from a bookmark, that “anger only begets more anger”. It’s a line that’s played for laughs and then dropped, yet it’s the truth at the heart of the film.
‘Crime film’, ‘tragicomedy’ … whatever. In the end, this is a deeply humane work that transcends easy labels.
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