Disclaimer: The following is a summary of this film with no spoilers. If you are the type of person who prefers to see films completely blind, however, I would not recommend reading.
This is the film that should have won best picture at the Academy Awards. It was written and directed by Martin Mcdonagh, a British-Irish playwright-come-director who brought us ‘In Bruges’ (2008), another favourite of mine. Witty, suspenseful, vulgar and violent, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is one hell of a film.
While driving along the American interstate 10 near Vidor, Texas in 2000, Mcdonagh passed a strange billboard. Pictured below, it condemned the local police’s failure to solve the case of Kathy Page, who was killed nine years earlier.
The event inspired Three Billboards. In it, Mildred Hayes, a bereaved mother of a murdered girl, rents three billboards along a little used road outside town. By keeping the case of her murdered daughter in the public eye she hopes to increase the chance of it being solved.
The billboards read:
Raped while dying
And still no arrests?
How come, chief Willoughby?
Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, is Ebbing’s head cop and a pillar of the community. For seven months his men have failed to turn up any evidence over the Angela Hayes case. His popularity puts the town at odds with the billboards and the woman who put them up.
Frances Mcdormand, wife of Joel Coen, plays Mildred Hayes in one of the the best performances of her career. Foul mouthed and abrasive, her determination to see justice for her daughter makes her a perfect antihero.
Sam Rockwell plays Jason Dixon, a moronic and uninhibited police officer with a violent temper who lives with his equally hateful mother. Fanatically loyal to Chief Willoughby, he takes personal offence to the billboards and launches a vendetta to see their removal.
Despite losing the Oscar for Best Picture to Guillermo Del Toro’s Shape of Water, Three Billboards was still an Academy Awards favourite, nominated for:
- best picture
- best original screenplay
- best film editing
- best original score (Carter Burwell)
- best actress (Frances McDormand)
- best supporting actor (Sam Rockwell)
Additionally Three Billboards won four Golden Globes and five BAFTAs. Both included best picture, best actress and supporting actor and best screenplay.
The film is intense. Its plot is turbulent and themes heavy: police brutality, grief, cancer and nihilism to name a few. Racism is touched on too, though somewhat clumsily. Like much of Mcdonagh’s work it couples dark comedy with deep emotional resonance. Few films have made me go from laughing out loud to hovering at the edge of my seat so much in a single sitting. Though the plot relies a little too strongly on coincidental encounters, at no point was it predictable.
Three Billboards was not without its share of controversy. Tim Parks of the New Yorker describes it as “a film so empty of emotional intelligence, so devoid of any remotely honest observation of the society it purports to serve”. Parks’s main criticism is that Three Billboards reduces complex social issues to a struggle between individuals and that it reinforces familiar stereotypes of the conservative Midwest. What he seems to forget, however, is that a film can only be so long, and exploring social issues and themes through characters is not transgression but the nature of narrative.
Another, more pressing criticism of Three Billboards is the handling of one of its main character arcs. Revealing more would call for a spoiler warning so I will stop short here. Suffice to say, I recommend you watch it first and come to your own conclusions. I will be happy to discuss mine in the comments below.