Cleveland, Ohio — So, this is the front-runner for the Oscars’ Best Picture award?
Yes, I can understand why.
With a morbid sense of humor and a complicated, overtly human subtext, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is the kind of film I expect from writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”, “Seven Psychopaths”) and much, much more. The drama is tense and explosive, and every ‘punchline’ hits you like a knee to the kidney… in a good way. I’m straying away from calling the humor ‘sharp’ as the jokes found in the unwavering grief, mourning and depression of the entire cast is more like cascading waves of self-referential passive aggression that hits the nail on the head each and every time.
The story centers around Mildred — acted by Frances McDormand — a mother who has been mourning the gruesome and incredibly violent death of her daughter, Angela — acted by Kathryn Newton — for seven months. Frustrated and furious with the lack of progress in the capture of the killer/rapist — a search entrusted in the hands of the titular city’s police department, of course — Mildred rents three billboards on the road to her home with a message to Ebbing’s police chief, William Willoughby – played by Woody Harrelson.
With the town divided on her unorthodox ways of getting attention back to her daughter’s killer, it becomes unequivocally clear that placing the blame on the chief is not exactly fair, but he is merely a figurehead for Mildred to hold responsible. While Willoughby finds respect for her in circumstance, others are not so forgiving. One of the people is deputy chief Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a brash, non-PC alcoholic who finds himself the butt of jokes and the target of much of the department’s criticism. In retaliation, he feels impaled to affect people close to Mildred, like her friends from work and Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the ad executive that’s keeping the troublesome billboards up in the first place.
The film is — at least, on the surface — a psychological war of words and actions, but the deeper into the story you go, the more you realize that those words and actions turn to rage-fueled vendettas and violent outbursts. And those fits of rage are equally shocking and hilarious, in an aforementioned morbid kind of way. It’s how the film finds itself at a peculiar balance between harsh reality and undeserved optimism. Or of domestic violence and dick jokes, whichever gets a rise out of the audience.
“Three Billboards” is certainly a film that showcases characters with sweeping, expansive character arcs that cause them to change morale, behavior and even allegiances. Each of the main characters is fleshed-out by the film’s conclusion, as the theme of forgiveness and price people pay for seeking revenge before accepting forgiveness is ever so apparent in Mildred and Dixon, to be specific. On a refreshing note, characters start narrow-minded and end up truly opening their eyes to a bigger picture, and at times a higher calling or understanding of what they must do. And to compliment this, every actor plays their roles perfectly. McDormand is exceptional as Mildred, being blunt and threatening in some moments and somewhat light-hearted and humorous in others, and without even cracking a smile most of the time. Rockwell on the other hand really shows his range as Dixon. Also, the relationship between Harrelson’s Willoughby and Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife Anne supply of the film’s most hilarious and sharp moments, as their conversations in front of their kids are always outrageously funny.
Oh, and to quell recent buzz of revoked praise for this film, the problems some critics have with “Three Billboards” are not quite justified.
Are there characters that perform unjustifiable actions and reach a point of becoming benevolent and even forgivable to an extent towards the film’s conclusion? Certainly. That’s the power of expertly-crafted characters and fine-tuned storytelling. I give McDonagh praise for leaving no stone unturned in terms of understanding the context of the story and the characters who react to their situations. It’s a move that turns good films into great films. And with all that said, I can definitely recommend this film. Watch it in time for the Academy Awards; it’s the kind of movie that usually receives favoritism from the Academy, but there are few films I can find that equally deserve the same level of acclaim.
PHOTO COURTESY – US TODAY