Editor’s Note- The Academy Awards is March 4, 2018. We have asked our resident Movie Reviewer, Wells Thompson, to review several of the movies up for Academy Awards leading up to the Oscars. The first review is for Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.
It’s always a surprise when your expectations are subverted, especially when you’re expecting the worst and wind up with the best case scenario. Every Oscar season, I expect to see a list of overblown dramas being recognized with a few great films sprinkled in that have no real chance of winning. Nearly every year, the winners are almost immediately forgotten and the actual best pictures, the ones that make a real impact, stand the test of time.
Imagine my surprise when I saw the Best Picture nominees and saw an incredibly diverse selection of almost exclusively excellent films. Films that broke through genre and gender barriers to present a selection of films that deserve the title of Best Picture. Films that, in no other year, ever would have made the cut.
Let’s start talking about those films with the one that, personally, surprised me the most, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Up for seven Academy Awards, the film follows Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) a year after her daughter’s murder as she pushes the police to continue what is now considered a cold case by using… well, three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri to publicly shame them.
With Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell supporting (and all three actors nominated), it seems reductive to even mention how forceful and moving the performances are. What surprised me about this movie wasn’t how effective it was, but rather how it achieved what it set out to do. And for that, credit goes to director and (nominated) screenwriter Martin McDonagh.
People familiar with the veteran playwright’s previous work in film will know him for In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, films that find ways to make you laugh in the face of child murder and calculated cruelty. McDonagh’s humor in the face of horror is a signature matched nowhere else and was the only thing I was truly expecting to experience walking into Three Billboards. This was a mistake.
I’m not saying that the movie is without a sense of humor as there are moments of levity and even hilarity throughout the film, but while his previous work used humor as a tool to get his point across, in Three Billboards it plays second fiddle to something much more sublime. The film weaves its story with an unflinching, raw sense of grief and rage emanating from a kind of personal loss no one should have to experience. That emotion stays with you all throughout your time as you watch empathetic characters escalate their actions to a point that they threaten to burn a hole in their small town, their loved ones, and their own lives.
I won’t lie to you, watching this film isn’t easy, but it absolutely needs to be experienced. A common theme in McDonagh’s films is the blurring of morality, and much of the humor he exploits in his work is centered around that idea. He constantly exposes the ridiculous places we draw the lines between right and wrong and how easily they can be manipulated. While his other films are fantastic in their own right, it’s Three Billboards that most effectively displays this idea by making the audience experience it themselves.
At no point watching this film are you certain with whom you should agree. The characters you hate at the beginning are the ones you root for at the end. The motivations that were the most relatable at the outset are the ones that wind up doing the most damage, while the people who seem the most out of place often provide the most stability and wisdom. As a result, you end up leaving the film as conflicted as the characters, but are never unsatisfied or annoyed by a lack of resolution. This is accentuated by the masterful editing which, while never obvious, builds your expectations and allows the film to expertly knock them down.
Most people go to the movies simply to be entertained, and I completely understand why this kind of uncomfortable, morally complex narrative might not appeal to some. That said, I urge you to give this a watch. It will be playing for the rest of February at Cinemark in Conway, so there’s no excuse for locals not to watch this by the time the Oscars roll around on March 4th. It’s a challenging film, but a rewarding one, and who knows, you might just
realize that Sam Rockwell is long overdue for his Oscar and start a full on riot when he’s inevitably robbed be surprised by what you see.
See the Trailer
Wells is a freelance writer specializing in fiction and narrative commentary. A graduate of the University of Central Arkansas’s English program, Wells spends much of his time at Blue Sail Coffee, frantically writing down articles for this website or editing a novel that’s just one fifteen more drafts from being complete.