With the Academy Awards looming over the horizon yet again, it is time to turn attention to a previous winner and escape the constant January negativity and speculation. Two years ago, one film in particular was at the centre of the omnipresent Oscar debates: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The dark comedy is the third feature written and directed by Martin McDonagh, chronicling a grieving mother’s warpath for justice to be served for her daughter’s unsolved murder. Continuing the trend commenced by his debut feature, In Bruges (2008), McDonagh’s latest film struck a tense balance between obscene humour and the bleak subject matter it arises from.
After lingering in vain hope and misery for seven months after the murder of her daughter, the pragmatic Mildred (Frances McDormand) sparks outrage in her rural community by putting a provocative message on three billboards to the town’s chief-of-police, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). With the help of bigot cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell), what ensues is foul-mouthed and explosive as “anger begets anger”. Nonetheless at its core, the film retains a profound sentimentality, echoing a 20th century dramatic tragicomedy.
As striking as the script is, the glaringly obvious merit of this film is the acting. Thank Mary, Mother and Joseph that Frances McDormand was not robbed of the Best Actress award in 2017. The strength of McDormand’s performance may even eclipse her award winning performance in 1996’s Fargo as she portrays the no-nonsense yet internally conflicted protagonist – publically defiant and yet wrestling with her own personal demons. Said demons linger over the shoulder of every character, even if we do not see them at first. None more so than the other two mains, expertly portrayed by Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell who were both nominated by the Academy for their performances, with Rockwell just pipping his co-worker. I imagine Harrelson being too high at the time to feel sadness at the result. Whilst Harrelson manages to portray an empathetic man in the midst of a tragedy, Rockwell’s Dixon is racist and violent, damned but with hope of redemption.
As Mildred declares Dixon and co. are “too busy going around torturing black folks”, elements of controversy arise. In a discussion of the film, Clint Gage of Cinefix (a YouTube channel I would highly recommend to all film-lovers) expresses his disappointment at the “hollowness” of the socially relevant themes the film teed up, such as discussions surrounding police brutality and racism. For once, I must disagree, Clint. In a film that constantly balances motifs on a knife’s edge, Dixon is a character that implies the necessity of change. No explicit redemption is established, yet changes take place in all of the characters. Seeds are planted and the open ending allows our imaginations to see them sprout. McDonagh has a skill for emphasising the flawed humanity of each of his characters. We can always empathise with them. Yet we are forced to stare down the barrel of their depravities. One example being when Dixon, enraged and saddened, throws a man out of a window in a beautifully brutal over the shoulder one-shot sequence. We see the cruelty in his own perspective, contrasting the empowering catharsis felt when Mildred acts upon her rage.
The script is unpredictable, the characters’ complex. There is little to fault in McDonagh’s renegade tour de force. The cinematography was simplistic but effective. Not as eye catching as Roger Deakins’ transportive palettes in BladeRunner 2049, however, shots such as the opening decrepit billboards help to compound the atmosphere whilst the progressive use of red lighting throughout is evocative of each lead’s struggle. All of which has initiated constant debate about which McDonagh film I now consider my favourite: In Bruges or Three Billboards? (Sorry, Seven Psychopaths fans).
Regardless of my opinion, the film mischievously avoids reassurance and finality. Consistently provocative, McDonagh’s script allows the viewer to interpret the events, to declare judgment on the characters. Yet there is a certain allure in the ambivalence as we wield the gavel, incapable of striking the hardwood as the credits roll.