Now that award season is upon us, hopeful films have begun to land thick and fast. Nowhere is the Oscar buzz more insistent than over Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. The fictional tale centres on the eponymous three billboards which are rented and used by Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) to challenge the local police over their inability to capture her daughter’s murderer. This one act of defiance sparks anger, and certainly lights a fire under the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) while infuriating his brazenly racist colleague Dixon (Sam Rockwell). But despite the lack of evidence meaning there really isn’t much they can do, Mildred isn’t about to let them off the hook…
The plot takes many unexpected twists and makes great use of a vast cast of character actors. Frances McDormand brings a quiet rage to her performance of the grieving mother, whose unforgiving and caustic nature is felt across the film as a whole. Woody Harrelson does great work as the worldly police chief, however it is Sam Rockwell who steals the show as he brings unexpected depth and development to Dixon, a character who could so easily have been one dimensional. All characters possess a confrontational single-mindedness which leads to clash after clash with little commonality except a shared gallows humour. This suits all characters, but Mildred especially thrives when given venomous lines; an example would be when Chief Willoughby reveals his cancer diagnosis and asks whether it was fair to call him out with the billboards at this time, to which Mildred responds “Well it wouldn’t have done much use after you’d croaked.”
Such dark humour befits a film made by the same director responsible for the gloriously vile In Bruges – Martin McDonagh also wrote the screenplay for Three Billboards, his first film in five years. The film he has delivered offers a glimpse into an often underrepresented type of American existence, concentrating on a small Southern town full of people who were born and raised there. We are told that the fictional town of Ebbing had been a favourite rest spot with travellers, but a nearby freeway has steered them well away since the mid-80’s. The town’s law enforcement is lacklustre at best, with Dixon showcasing a rogue and borderline maniacal streak in his dealings with suspected criminals. This is a town that feels forgotten, where Mildred believes her only recourse is to take justice for her daughter’s brutal murder herself.
Three Billboards is a painfully funny and terribly sad film which explores a mother’s grief in the context of a town which has been left behind. Mildred takes a stand against this inertia by erecting the billboards and demanding answers. The fallout from the billboards ultimately motivates characters who are stuck to break out of their narratives with tragic and inspiring consequences. Expect the Oscar buzz to keep buzzing.