Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, February 3, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

I only know Martin McConagh as a playwright. I read “The Pillowman,” a disturbing bit of speculative fiction heavy on violence against children, while I was in college. However, McConagh is also a filmmaker. His previous movies, “In Burges” and “Seven Psychopaths,” earned critical acclaim and cult followings. And now, his third feature, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” is a Best Picture contender. (This brings him back to the Oscars, as his short film, “Six Shooter,” won the Best Live Action Short award in 2004.) “Three Billboards” has become one of the most controversial films this Oscar season, as people have argued about the way it represents its various controversial themes. This has not stopped the movie from picking up quite a few awards along the way. I guess it's time for me to weigh in.

Seven months ago, Mildred Hayes' teenage daughter was viciously burned, raped, and murdered and in that order. The police of Ebbing, Missouri have made no arrests. While drivng home one night, Mildred notices three empty billboards and gets an idea. She purchases the billboards, planting a message detailing the crime and asking why no one has been apprehended yet on them. This throws the community into turmoil. Sheriff Willoughby, dying of cancer, struggles with what to do. Officer Jason Dixon struggles through his own rage and prejudices to react to the confrontation. Mildred, meanwhile, makes herself a target for scrutiny.

No wonder “Three Billboards” has become controversial. The film tries to hit as many current social issues as possible. A violent crime against a young woman is at the center of the plot. Mildred is a strong, opinionated woman surrounded by men trying to silence her. Police brutality, and the effectiveness of the police in general, are another theme of the story. Racial violence plays into this as well, as Dixon previously brutalized a black man for no reason. How well the film handles these issues is a matter of debate. As a story about a woman becoming a target, simply because she chooses to speak up at all, it's fairly effective. The racial content is less certain. The black characters are kept on the sidelines. Sam Rockwell's Jason Dixon has his racism seemingly cured by one inspirational letter, as its never addressed again. We're asked to forgive his serious offenses a bit too easily.

There's one thing, though, even the detractors of “Three Billboards” seem to agree on. Frances McDormand is fucking fantastic as Mildred. Wearing a constant scowl, McDormand makes Frances a force of nature. She is never afraid to speak her mind and does not give a shit if she offends someone. When confronted, such as by a random thug who comes into her shop, she never back downs. Her rage against the police, boundless and red hot, can't help but feel relevant in a time when the injustices performed by cops are coming to light more and more. Yet Mildred is not just a furious wronged woman. She has softer moments, talking to a stray deer or her bunny slippers in the morning, and even chooses to calm herself at several times. It's an impressive performance and will probably win McDormand her second Oscar.

“Three Billboards'” cast is quite star-studded. Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrselson are both nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Harrelson, as the dying Sheriff Willoughby, gives a solid performance. Willoughby first strikes the viewer as a typically hard-headed small town cop. However, his softer side quickly shows through, during his scenes with his wife and two daughters. His story arc concludes in an especially touching way. Rockwell plays Dixon as a stunted man-child, ruled by his emotions and an overbearing mother. The story shows him maturing into a more compassionate human being but even a performer as strong as Rockwell can't quite sell the shaky transition. Even smaller parts are occupied by known actors, such as Peter Dinklage as a shy guy romantically interested in Mildred, John Hawkes as Mildred's easily angered ex-husband, and Samara Weaving as his teenage girlfriend.

“Three Billboards” belongs fairly clearly to the dramady genre, as it veers between serious and comedic throughout. The film succeeds as a dark comedy mostly thanks to McConagh's colorfully profane dialogue. A memorably funny moment has Mildred swearing – Mildred swears a lot – at a newscaster who is perhaps speculating a little too much. As a drama, the film works best when focusing on its key characters, such as Mildred's struggles or Dixon's attempt to unravel the central crime. Ultimately, the film suffers from a lack of focus. It's trying to do so many things, some of them better than others, that no ending could've readily satisfied viewers. The one McDonagh cooked up, which verges on the half-assed, certainly does not.

“Three Billboards” owes most of its critical acclaim to McDormand's thunderous performance and probably its willingness to tackle so many hot button topics. While I'm totally on board with Frances, I wish the movie's grip on its controversial story line was stronger. Some have suggested that this middlebrow approach to social justice issues might make the film a Best Picture winner. Considering this is a year without a clear front runner, I could see the vote being split and an obvious runner-up like this grabbing the top prize. We'll see. Until then, I say “Three Billboards” contains a great performance but its not enough to save an occasionally clever but ultimately muddled screenplay. [6/10]

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