Three Billboards Inside Academy Award Perspective

Psychological criminal drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) has already won numerous awards, including Best Screenplay at the 74th Venice Film Festival, four Golden Globes, and got six Academy Award Nominations. Film director Martin McDonagh assumed a co-producer position in his third full length project after In Bruges (2007) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). He calls his nominee film “deliberately messy and difficult, because it`s a messy and difficult world”.

Quiet and bare-bones life of the whistle-stop was shaken by tragic accident. The main character`s daughter was raped and killed seven months ago. Time flows but the crime still unsolved. Mildred, the lonely mother, stays strong and willing to reach justice by all means. Inaction of authorities hints her the way to drag people`s attention: she leases three old billboards out of use along the back road to the town. She places there the bitter reminder and the reproach to the local marshall: what has he done to solve the case? The town awakes again, but the folks do not support Mildred in her search for the truth, just because the Police Chief Bill Willoughby is a respected person, no one doubts his professional skills, and he is death sick. What`s the point in poisoning his last days by such a public rivalry? Humanity is on their side, but Mildred is right as well: she fights the war on everyone not to put the town on fire but to call for justice as one of the basic human values. Instead of that the only thing that was put on fire were her billboards, but she restores them. The wall of misunderstanding between her and her neighbours, her ex, her son grows and divides the small town into two camps: the local folks who prefer their humdrum to stay untouched, and the lone warrior in the field.

Without going too far into the cobwebs of the plot with its countless events, symbols and minor characters I want to highlight three major acting masterpieces.

The main part is portrayed by Frances McDormand, she embodied the woman of the great strength, will, wit and common sense. She wears the pants in the family. There are many of such women in big cities and nowheresvilles as well, they are usually smart and beautiful (regardless of the age) but often unhappy – men find hard to compete with them. Mildred`s ex-husband Charley left her for a sweet and bubbleheaded nineteen. She only had to restore her life from ruins, earn money, raise children – all by her own. The tragedy made her understand that sometimes she`d better be softer and nicer to people, but hindsight is 20/20, as usual.  Her wisdom came to her too late, and the tragedy lasts longer since the thought of what was to be done is haunting her day by day. This everlasting internal torture of undone and unsaid was brilliantly reflected in the role.

Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is not just a local sheriff. Sure, he is a classical “good cop” – he`s honest, righteous, sometimes a bit rude, and that matches Harrelson`s acting type. But this film makes a discovery that the same man can also be touching and tender – it is a big talent of Harrelson and a special vision of the director to portray both these edges of character at once. He is a fair family guy, a loving husband and father of two, and he is that very one who has not much to live. Bill does not want to die, but he can not stand even the thought of being weak in the eyes of his family, so he commits suicide.

Despite of his illness Chief Willoughby did not left his office till the last day. He can not leave the cases of his responsibility unattended, so a few days before his death he visited Mildred trying to explain the true state of the case: the police had no clues, no evidences, and no witnesses. And, before putting an end to his own life, Chief Willoughby left a few letters, not only to his wife Ann, but also to his colleagues and some folks. These letters are very important to some changes in their lives. Willoughby says something no one ever dared to tell, and the filmmakers have done a great literature job while creating them and seasoning them with style and individuality. Willoughby`s letters suggest new plotlines and unexpected turns.

The most controversial character is officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who does all his best at the beginning to make the audience deeply dislike him. Aimlessly cruel, cynical and rude, he seems to hate every single person in the town: black guys, white guys, gays, midgets, whoever else. He confronts with Mildred as she tried to blame the police and his respected Chief Willoughby. But then he turns to be the loving son of a lonely old mother, who also loves his pet – a little turtle – and comic books for kids. Maybe his pet is not a random choice: Dixon himself is hiding in a shell. Chief Willoughby only knew something about him and could explain his anger and hatred. He left him a letter as well, writing that in fact he was a good guy but faced many troubles, lost his father and did not have enough faith that his dream of being a detective can come true. The audience can see the transformation that is going on in a “bad cop`s” mind. He learns to apologize, to hear others, to think twice before doing. Dixon decided not to leave Mildred`s case, even being fired from the police. He manages to find the criminal, but still the police decided not to interfere – the suspect is covered by his army supervisors. The new Police Chief is proud by Dixon`s aid and talent, but confirms that they can not reach the suspect, and does not offer Dixon a job. Such a paradox: the person who caused only negative emotions at the very beginning, makes you feel sympathetic in the end.

Photo by Merrick Morton. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Mildred and Dixon comes to the necessity of making choice, and they chose restoring justice by themselves. They say silent farewell to their beloved, and takes a ride to nowhere with a gun in a car. We do not know how the story ends, Martin McDonagh leaves it to the audience to decide.

It is hard to find right words while writing about a righteous film. Three Billboards is a film with a character, an address to everyone. While some think it is too “American”, or “Southern”, or “sharp”, I`d rather say it is lifelike and honest. Its aesthetics is completed by the emotionally mighty score by Carter Burwell. The music shines a light of hope to the dappled land with three billboards standing like the sole castle.


Mila S.


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