Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review: Another Worthy Pick for Best Picture
Both Frances McDormand and her lead character, Mildred Hayes, are worthy of a standing ovation in this character-driven masterpiece
Frances McDormand’s lead character, Mildred Hayes, is the ultimate badass. No, the lady does not wear cool shades or dress in leather or even drive a mean set of wheels. Those depictions are, for the want of a better phrase, heavily cliché-ridden. What makes Mildred so impressive is that she is identifiable. She is the everywoman who exemplifies boundless courage, refusing to take a backward step no matter the circumstance. A small-town mother in the American south looking for answers to her daughter’s unsolved murder, Hayes is feisty, quick-witted, often downright hilarious, has a vituperative tongue, and yet, hasn’t lost touch with her humanity. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, rests on the shoulders of what may well turn out to be an Oscar-winning performance from Frances McDormand. With seven nominations at the upcoming Academy Awards, it will be hard to imagine the film not walking away with at least half those honours, come March 4.
Director – Martin McDonagh
Cast – Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
Based on a straightforward premise, Three Billboards, which is set in the fictional town of Ebbing, recounts the tale of a mother seeking answers from the local police department for her daughter’s rape and murder. Dismayed by the apparent apathy of law enforcement authorities, Mildred Hayes rents three derelict billboards on a near-deserted stretch of road. Each successive hoarding reads: “RAPED WHILE DYING”; “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”; “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” The matter escalates quickly, and Mildred gets the raw end of the stick from the predominantly conservative local community. The highly respected Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) attempts to convince her that the department did everything in its power to solve the case. Even as Hayes remains steadfast, Willoughby feels that singling him out for a seven month old unsolved murder investigation is unfair. The easily-incensed, visibly dim-witted, and racist/homophobic Officer Dixon (Rockwell) exerts pressure on Mildred to take down the ads, but she refuses to succumb to public pressure. In the midst of all the furore, it is learned that the likeable police chief is suffering from a terminal illness.
While it explores a grave subject, the film fuses its most intense and poignant moments with large doses of dark humour. Just as a heavy scene builds up to challenge your sensibilities, an instance of unexpected comedy pulls the rug from under your feet. Mildred’s no-nonsense attitude does not dim for even an instant. There’s an exchange early on, when the town’s parish priest calls on Mildred. He tells her that the community supports her need for justice, but doesn’t agree with her methods. Mildred responds sharply, and alludes to the rampant sexual abuse going on in church, while telling him flatly to ‘get the f*** out of her house.’ While being interrogated by Chief Willoughby for allegedly assaulting the dentist, she is horror-stricken when he inadvertently coughs up blood; her innate kindness shines as she rushes to get him help. Three Billboards is the kind of film that defies categorisation. Yes, it celebrates the power of individual protest by other means, but it also makes you laugh uncontrollably at its black comedy. One such scene comes to mind: Mildred’s abusive ex-husband, Charlie, pays her a visit about the billboards. Tensions flare as she pushes his buttons about dating a 19-year-old. In the midst of the melee, Charlie’s girlfriend (who was waiting outside) enters, and requests to use the bathroom. The ensuing exchange, with his rambling girlfriend answering questions about her old job at the zoo and her subsequent termination, is as awkward in the charged environment as it is genuinely funny. The second half of this brilliant character-driven film is as much about Mildred as it is about the transformation of the emasculated mama’s boy, Dixon. The lead character, who will use violence and force if and when the need arises, is given tremendous depth by Frances McDormand. In the midst of all the verbally combative moments, her measured grief floats to the surface as a sort of gentle reminder. While Three Billboards will be celebrated for her role and the spirit of protest, one must not discount the supporting acts of Rockwell and Harrelson. Martin McDonagh’s fantastic screenplay is bound together beautifully by Carter Burwell’s score that features such folk legends as Joan Baez and Townes Van Zandt. Scenes of Mildred driving past the billboards and beyond, with the music playing in the background, remain etched in my memory.