In a year where the Hollywood awards season has been defined by the #metoo campaign, it seems fitting that one of the front-runners for the Oscars next month would be Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. London – Irish director and writer Martin McDonagh’s portrait of middle America follows a defiant, fiery protagonist in Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who decides to rent out three billboards on the edge of town a year on from the rape and murder of her daughter.
She uses these billboards to question the local police force – and in particular the well liked Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson – why there has been no arrests made. The billboards are unsurpringsly divisive in the town as the locals sympathise with Mildred’s pain, but disagree with hanging a more or less decent citizen like Willoughby out to dry, especially since he’s been diagnosed with cancer. As a result, Mildred becomes a pariah within the community for the billboards, and Ebbing Police Station’s resident racist Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) only exacerbates the whole situation by becoming involved in a typically violent fashion.
McDormand’s brilliant performance as a woman who is at the end her tether drives a cleverly written plot, and she might well provide the stiffest opposition to Saoirse Ronan for the Best Actress Academy Award. Indeed, each of the three main actors (McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell) have all been nominated for Oscars which is a testament to not only how superbly acted these roles are, but also how well written and defined the characters were by McDonagh.
Despite being a fairly dark story, the film still has several moments of levity throughout. Much like McDonagh’s previous offerings In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, the comedy helps offset the violence. Despite limited screen time, it is Mildred ex-husband’s 19-year-old girlfriend Gabriella who is the source of perhaps the film’s funniest scenes. With the film also having a number of domestic violence scenes, sometimes just before Gabriella helps lift the mood, the humour is greatly needed and it is an impressive feat that the film refuses to be weighed down by its heavy subject matter and still finds plenty of light amongst the darkness.
Although the film has many positives, the way that Three Billboards… deals with issues of race has come under scrutiny. A particular criticism of the film has been the character arc of the aforementioned momma’s boy cop Dixon. At the films outset, we learn that Dixon is a nasty individual who has tortured black residents of Ebbing in the past. However, as the story progress the initially villainous character undergoes a sort of transformation, which suggests he might be a somewhat redeemable character.
This aspect of the film has been controversial prompting Alison Willmore in a Buzzfeed article to write that the film “treats racism like it’s just another quaint regional detail”. The lack of any major black characters in the film also means that we only really get a perspective from one side. McDonagh defended his film’s treatment of race stating in a Guardian interview by Xan Brooks that; “I can totally see where the backlash is coming from. But I don’t think I redeem him (Dixon), or forgive him, or try to make him a hero because the point is that there are no heroes or villains”.
Three Billboard outside Ebbing, Missouri probably did handle the issue of race slightly clumsily, but it shouldn’t take away from a rousing and resonant performance by Frances McDormand. Mildred Hayes is far from perfect, but she is an apt heroine for the world we live in today.
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