by: Christopher Rockwell
Although ensnared by controversy, the case for Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to win Best Picture at the 2018 Academy Awards…
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a complex and sophisticated film. Its particular intricacies are highlighted by the recognition it is receiving and in the heightened, and often contentious, discussions revolving around the Oscar nominated film. At its core, Three Billboards is a film about a grieving mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand), and her quest for justice and the peace of mind that she hopes comes with it. It’s a story that pits a determined #nastywoman against anything and anyone that stands in her way of uncovering the truth about the death of her daughter. Three Billboards is a film that confronts head on the depths of pain and heartache that surround the loss of a child, and is a testament to the ability of the human spirit to persevere, and for that reason Three Billboards is easily one of the most affecting films released in 2017.
Comprising one of the most talented casts of the season, including stunning performances from Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, Clarke Peters, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, and Lucas Hedges, Three Billboards offers a candid social commentary on themes concerning racism, police brutality, and the unique and troubling propensity of violence to breed more and more violence. Director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), a London-born playwright with Irish parents whose previous work has shone a light on the struggles of the Irish working class, orchestrates this multifaceted tale with precision, allowing for each character’s agony and motivations to be thoroughly understood. Three Billboards’s narrative centers around Mildred (McDormand), but the ripples that expand from her unflappable crusade touch all those in her orbit. Mildred son’s (Hedges) pain is compounded by her protest. Those who care about Mildred most (Peter Dinklage’s James) are coldly pushed away. And those individuals who are the focus of her unique demonstration — involving a trio of unused billboards on a barren country road (Woody Harrelson’s Bill Willoughby and Sam Rockwell’s James Dixon) — have their lives dramatically altered by her crusade. The pain stemming from the loss of Mildred’s child widens in scope as the film progresses, and yet Three Billboards culminates in a tone that is remarkably hopeful, and herein is where the controversy lies.
Critiques of the film, which surfaced in spades following its winning Best Drama, Motion Picture at the Golden Globes, took aim at what they view as a tone-deaf redemptive arc for Sam Rockwell’s Jason Dixon, a crooked and profoundly bigoted police officer. The Daily Beast’s Ira Madison III described the film as “wholly offensive,” put off entirely because he interpreted the film’s conclusion as providing redemption for a blatantly racist police officer, “not through owning up to his racism or doing jail time for his crimes, but because he’s determined to solve the mystery of who raped and murdered Frances McDormand’s daughter.” McDonagh responded to this criticism, stating in a podcast interview with Variety’s Kristopher Tapley that “I think some of it comes from the idea that Dixon is redeemed at the end…I don’t think he is.” This brand of criticism surely implies Dixon is redeemed and forgiven in part for his past behavior in the film, an assumption I also find mistaken. Dixon’s crimes are not meant to be forgotten or overlooked, but his shockingly benevolent actions serve as a means for which Mildred, heretofore broken beyond a conceivable means of repair, finds a measure of catharsis, and a ray of light in her dark and damaged world.
In fact, the unlikely ally that Mildred finds in Dixon offers a measure of hope for all of humanity. Although Dixon’s vile behaviors should not be overlooked or dismissed in any way, there is a change in him, one that is surprising and heartening to behold. In reality, and particularly in the current divisive political climate, it would be simple-minded and unproductive to dismiss positive changes in even the most wicked of humans. Humankind needs those with outdated, ignorant and dangerous ideas to wake up, and when they do, it is imperative to welcome, even if begrudgingly, those transformed into the fold and not cast them off for their former sins. Life is messy, even ugly at times, and full of nuance, and McDonagh is well aware of this fact. Clarke Peters (Lester Freeman from The Wire!), brilliant in his role as Abercrombie in Three Billboards, professed in response to the backlash to the film that “It’s [Three Billboards] holding a mirror up to us and sometimes when you look in the mirror there are things you like to see and things you don’t like to see.” It is a film rife with hard and powerful truths, although at times they are indeed tough to behold.
Three Billboards isn’t a story about a racist cop that the viewer learns to empathize with upon being acquainted with his hate-filled mother, and in light of his benevolent actions as the film comes to its close, but a story about a strong woman and her pain and the fight that she just won’t back down from. Mildred’s pain made her hard. It made her cold and decidedly stubborn. But all the while, her humanity lingered, visible just beneath the surface, in an impactful way. Her suffering was palpable throughout the film, manifesting her fight and her journey all the more inspiring. Three Billboards excels as a portrait of pain, and in its acknowledgement that the way in which one reacts to it can compound the hurt and spread it around. Or how, amazingly, solace can be found in the most unlikely of places.
Listen to an in depth conversation about Three Billboards Outisde Ebbing, Missouri on ATM Media Co’s latest podcast: Welcome To The Party Pal: The Mind-Bending Film & Television Podcast You Didn’t know You Needed!