With Oscar season having an arguably blissful turnout and to be honest, the whole of 2017 delivering some of the best and worst pieces of craft seen in the last decade, it seems that the upcoming Oscars may have an upset or two when it comes around. One of this year’s major awards contenders is the latest pitch black comedy from director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), entitled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and fresh off its clean sweep at the Golden Globes, its buzz is higher than ever. With an interesting premise revolving around an ill-fated mother protesting her local authority’s legitimacy as “protectors”, she uses three billboards to remind them that her raped and murdered daughter lies dead with still no arrests made, and it is her belief that the police are to blame for that.
Screenplay of the Year?
In terms of awards, you could put screenplay awards among the hardest to analyse with a mainstream audience. There is so much more you have to consider compared to other categories. However, the beauty of Three Billboards is that even for mainstream audiences, it is easy to see that the true essence of the movie is captured within its dialogue. From the pacing to the tone to the volume and to the information shared, it is all achieved through smartly devised dialogue. Whilst hearing it, its hard not to have flashbacks to the Coen brothers’ classics The Big Lebowski (1998) or Fargo (1996) – also starring Frances McDormand – it feels like a great homage to classic Coen Brothers films not just with the dialogue but also with its isolated setting and dynamic themes.
On the basis of dynamic themes, besides from the screenplay being just stunning, it was also really risky. It’s evident that dark humour plays a big part in this film but the themes represented are equally as dark. It explores concepts related to suicide, depression, racism, police brutality, free speech and political correctness. This is a film that can be seen as entirely relevant to the current time period, and its controversial handling of race has been a major talking point following the Globes sweep. However, the way McDonagh stabilises and handles both the light and dark side to this film is utterly masterful and leaves the viewer surely short of breath.
Understandably it is among the big favourites to take home the Best Original Screenplay gong at the Oscars, and its easy to see why when being presented with a screenplay so richly told with great pacing, interesting characters and fiercely comic dialogue.
The Pro and the Con
Even though the screenplay is hard to beat, it is only bested by formidable acting of the highest quality. As the grieving, world-weary mother Mildred, Frances McDormand transforms herself into this brooding, fierce and hard-to-hate character who is filled with so much depth and connection to the other individuals, and its no surprise that she seems the likely winner of this year’s Best Actress award. The films starts off all about her but it gradually and poetically expands to tell the story of each person in the story, and once this begins, Sam Rockwell’s wondrous performance as the unhinged and initially detestable Officer Dixon oozes its way to the very forefront of the film. Similarly to McDormand, he seems to have the Best Supporting Actor award deservedly nailed on this year, as it’s certainly been the most memorable and transformative supporting performance of the last year. As these other characters find their feet within the film, it starts to focus more on the character’s stories rather than the movie’s story because they are filled with so many interesting layers and represented with so much mastery.
If there was any hint of a con about this film, it would be that to a point some characters could have been explored more. For the lead actors, also including a typically brilliant performance from Woody Harrelson as Ebbing’s Chief of Police Bill Willoughby, their character’s are perfectly tailored to them but there were a few that required further exploration into their motives, like Peter Dinklage’s loveably charming James, Zeljko Ivanek’s Desk Sergeant, Caleb Landry Jones’s Red or even Anne, Willoughby’s wife played by Abbie Cornish. There is a lasting desire to spend more time with them but for the times they’re on screen, the subtle layers written into their characters are portrayed effectively and its the hallmark of a truly stacked ensemble cast that so many different roles can be appreciated and applauded.
There really isn’t much, if at all, to dislike about this film. There are some things about it that are just good, others that are great, others amazing and others perfect so whilst this film of the highest quality, it isn’t perfect. Three Billboards is an excellent triumph and a great example of dealing with brutal topics with humour that is both mature and immature. Some circumstances can be seen as a little silly but it all makes sense when you see the care and love that is illustrated by these characters, with astounding, awards worthy performances by McDormand and Rockwell anchoring the story masterfully. The humorousness of these dark topics is undoubtedly realistic, and it wouldn’t be a surprise in years to come to see this as one of the most reflective pieces of our time.
Words by Kieran Hunter