Three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of those rare films that, despite embodying a very politically-oriented message (one of the reasons for its Oscars buzz in this Trump-era awards season), actually manages to leave a mark on the mind of the audience. On leaving the cinema one feels simultaneously thoughtful and emotionally satisfied. Thankfully, the credit of the film rests not simply in its moral lessons or ‘politically correct’ slogans (loudly spelt out on the said billboards), but instead with its array of unforgettable characters and the great depth of human emotions explored through its wonderful script and the entire cast’s excellent performances.
Directed and written by the famous playwright Martin McDonaugh, the dark comedy opens with a thoughtful look on Mildred’s face as she drives down the road past three abandoned billboards. This simple action provokes a chain of events that drives the small town into anger and chaos as the rage of an unforgiving mother threatens to burn down everyone who stands in the way of seeking justice for the death of her daughter Angela. In one last desperate attempt she shouts out to the town’s sheriff, Willoughby, for failing in his duty. As Mildred finds herself increasingly isolated in this one-woman battle against the whole town (the population of which are intent on getting over the incident as soon as possible), the line between right and wrong blurs. McDonaugh breathes life into the script through the compelling depiction of complex, fully-rounded characters who possess, like us, both merits and faults. As the film digs deeper into the complexity of human nature, the true reason behind Angela’s unsolved case ultimately points to what is one of the most urgent issues in contemporary American society, and even worldwide: the collapse of the public’s belief in the justice system in this post-truth world.
Revenge drama, with a touch of Western, black humour and violence combine in a way that is reminiscent of a Coen brothers film, one of which (Burn After Reading) the film’s leading lady Frances McDormand has previously featured in. The veteran actress demonstrates her versatility in embodying different dimensions of an emotionally complex woman, pushing herself to the brink of destruction like a fire that is both dangerous and captivating. Similarly, Sam Rockwell’s role as the hot-headed officer Dixon escalates tensions as the plot develops. In order to balance these two fiery, strong-willed characters, McDonaugh cleverly uses Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby—who has less screen time than expected, but nevertheless contributes a lasting influence on the rest of the characters—as the embodiment of human love and hope in the depressing, claustrophobic town. The dynamic between the script and the actors proved to be beautiful, leading to one of the most memorable ensemble performances in recent years.
Three billboards, no matter how many awards it picks up at the end of the Oscars race, has certainly proved itself as a great film and far from just another tailor-made ‘award genre’ product. In a Hollywood increasingly obsessed with themes and slogans that often risk outweighing the artistic value of cinema, i’m thankful a film that is not just meaningful, but also truly enjoyable, has a significant shot in taking home the top prize.