Seven Oscar nominations. What kind of a film lives up to the hype of being nominated for seven Oscars?
This kind of film does.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a lot to say. It doesn’t waste time saying them. It doesn’t mince its words, or play coy to protect your sensibilities or your quaint, virgin ears. It gets right into the ugly truth, and then keeps digging. There’s a bitter vein of comedy running through the whole film, that catches you off guard when you realise what the scene is actually about. I have only very rarely heard so much laughter in a cinema audience, and I have never heard laughter cut short so abruptly by a subsequent line of dialogue. This film darts back and forth between black comedy and outright tragedy with incredible speed, but neither tone ever feels out of place.
Within the first five minutes, I became all but certain that this, more than any other nominee, is worthy of the award for Best Original Screenplay. The dialogue is sharp in all the right places, emotional on all the right beats, and you can practically read the delicacy of Martin McDonagh’s descriptions in every shot. But those shots are populated with actors, and those actors are all delivering career-defining performances. Frances McDormand, as main character Mildred Heyes, is unflinching, stoic and perfectly defined, and is one of the most compelling protagonists I have ever seen. Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby is a brilliant foil for McDormand, sympathetic to her struggle, but grounded by the reality that he’s simply unable to do anything, and angered by the inflammatory billboards that she’s put up (and, believe me, they’re as abrasive as the rest of the film). Additionally, Sam Rockwell’s Sergeant Dixon is an incredibly nuanced and complex portrayal of a man, steeped in anger issues and prejudices, riding a power trip, even if he might initially seem a little one-note.
But here’s the thing: none of these characters are just one thing. Mildred Heyes is not just the stoic hero, sticking it to the man in the name of retribution and justice. Chief Willoughby isn’t just an incompetent Police Officer who doesn’t care enough to work the case and Sergeant Dixon isn’t just a racist, homophobic cop with anger problems. This is because Three Billboards isn’t a film about good against evil, or justice against injustice, it’s a character study. It’s a film about tragedy,about how tragedy ruins people and about how we ought to react to that.
I’ve been fairly coy about the actual content of the film, because this is a rare occasion on which I truly feel you’ll get the most out of your first watch if you go in blind. But I will say this: the film is about so much more than three billboards in a quiet little town, and it’s about so much more than what those billboards say. But that’s our starting point: I won’t even tell you what the billboards say (I think the trailers actually alter it a lot), but the words are powerful, and every word spoken after them is just as powerful. You might not like everything it has to say, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t move you.