For many Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seemed to be the smart bet to win the Best Picture Oscar. While The Shape Of Water had made the early running, Three Billboards gained momentum through the Award season and seemed like it might cruise to a victory. In the end it didn’t get the big gong, although it did win for the exceptionally strong performance of Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. Many were also surprised it lost for writer/director Martin McDonagh’s screenplay, although it is a couple of issues with that screenplay that may be the reason it didn’t win the biggest award.
McDormand plays the hard-bitten Mildred, a woman filled with anger at the local police’s inability to catch whoever was responsible for the rape and murder of her daughter. To try and force the authorities into action she hires three billboards on a rural road, putting up massive posters asking why there have been no arrests and specifically calling out police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
The giant posters soon gain attention from both the local media and the townsfolk. While some support Mildred’s actions, many feel she’s gone to far. However, Mildred is not one to back down, resulting in a growing tension and the threat of violence as she attempts to force some action while feeling the backlash. That backlash includes policeman Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a volatile man believed to have been involved in the racist beating of a black suspect, and who seems to fil that with a badge the ends always justifies the means
It’s not just the presence of Frances McDormand that offers up echoes of the early Coen Brothers, it’s also the movie’s rather twisted sense of humour, moments of brief but explosive violence and ability to take things to the extreme without seeming silly. Three Billboards builds the tension by really drawing you into the characters and their stories. These aren’t easy or simple people, with McDonagh drawing them in shades of grey. Mildred may be the mothers of a murdered child, but she’s also ornery and occasionally vicious, with a sharp tongue and uncompromising attitude.
More difficult though and potentially one of the reasons it didn’t pick up the Best Picture Oscar is Sam Rockwell’s Dixon. Despite the actor’s brilliant performance, the character is an unpleasant and violent bigot, who seems to think his police badge is a licence to commit some truly atrocious acts. The film wants us to see that underneath he may not be that bad, but it doesn’t really show us that, instead attempting to give him a free pass. It’s these sorts of messy edges that prevent it being a truly great film. That’s a great shame because it gets close to being an impressive statement on Trump’s America, taking in attitudes to the media and the dangers of believing the rights of the authorities are more important than those the people – not to mention Mildred lack of ‘patriotism’ in criticising the cops.
However, the script is a little too loose at times which means that while it’s a great watch with some brilliant performances and a fast-paced, explosive plot that barrels along at a slick pace, it always feels like there’s something missing. Like some of McDonagh’s other movies, there’s a lack of control and a hope that a free-wheeling use of the unexpected can cover its flaws. To be honest if it weren’t for the Oscar attention no one would have cared as it is still an extremely good movie, but being so close to brilliant it is a shame it never quite makes that leap.
Overall Verdict: A noir-ish small-town thriller that deserved its Oscar attention, even if that attention did make its flaws more noticeable than they might otherwise have been.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac