Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri(2017) Review

Director : Martin McDonagh
Genre : Black Comedy, Drama
Synopsis : A mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter's murder when they fail to catch the culprit.

Challenging Cinematic Conventions of Good & Evil!

People struggle with Good and Evil everyday. It's part of being human and having the ability to make choices. It could be as simple as having a salad as opposed to grilled cheese and french fries. Watching a movie, especially one that involves extreme good vs extreme evil makes us feel a little better about the little evil choices that we make each day. Watching this conflict being laid out so plainly in movies also offers us a sense of relief and hope. Watching 'Good' prevail in films helps us to basically cope with the evils of our daily lives. 

The hero is good and the villain is bad, and in the end, the former is supposed to triumph over the latter. This is what films have taught us to expect from any story arc. The last time I found myself deliberating over the relevance of good and evil was while watching the Bollywood film Badlapur(2015).

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, he creates a character-driven subterfuge that tests this very inbred notion about heroes and villains. Resisting obvious temptations of a sub-genre popularized by Tarantino and his brutal ballads, he demonstrates to us that sometimes, a beast born out of a wronged hero is perhaps more dangerous than the villain chastised through mistakes. 

He does this with the help of three amazingly well fleshed out characters - a grieving mother played by Frances McDormand who seeks justice for the violent death of her daughter, the town's chief of police played by Woody Harrelson, and his junior officer who has a penchant for violence and is also a racist, played by Sam Rockwell. 

In a performance that is a master class in acting at its finest, Frances McDormand gifts her character Mildred, a certain steeliness that you can't help but admire in spite of the fact that she is so ornery most of the time. At times, you wonder if she had nails for breakfast as she so rarely breaks into a smile. Yet, her glowering refusal to back down is exactly what makes us root for her, even at times when she does some despicable things, out of some misplaced sense of vigilantism. There is something almost joyful in the way she takes no prisoners and lashes out at anyone who offends, laughs at, or even consoles her. Beneath her tough facade, you're well aware that this is a woman who has been deeply hurt and let down by almost everybody. For her, taking no shit and lashing out is her recovery mechanism and the only way she feels fit to carry on. 

More than two decades after she won an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Fargo(1996)be prepared to see her giving an Oscar acceptance speech for the second time. 

Woody Harrelson is immensely likeable as Chief Willoughby, the officer who was in charge of finding Mildred's daughter's killer. Although he has a limited screen time, the sincerity and honesty with which he conducts himself melts your heart and his is a character that stays with you long after the film is over. 

The real revelation however, is Sam Rockwell. It's astounding how an actor can still manage to conjure up humanity out of such a wretched character. So while his character of Officer James Dixon  is a racist, and is the closest that this movie comes to having a villain, even he is given a compelling story arc. 

As to whom among Woody and Sam has a greater chance of winning the Oscar(Best Supporting Actor), my gut says it's Sam purely because of the vast range of his character arc, although Woody brings to the film the same kind of bittersweet presence that Mahershala Ali brought in his Oscar winning role to last year's Moonlight.

Acting aside, if there is one thing that the movie deserves an Oscar for, then it is the brilliant screenplay, which is undoubtably the real hero of the film. Martin McDonagh's script manages to have universal elements of loss, grief and recovery connecting every character in the film. At times, it is downright funny and then it's tone shifts to very violent, and then it becomes surprisingly moving. Perhaps the best example of how Martin McDonagh's script balances all this organically is one of my favorite moments from the film, which is a beautifully devised scene where you have two characters one-upping each other and squaring off as archenemies, and then suddenly, with the introduction of something much bigger than their individual grievances with each other, the tone shifts seamlessly from confrontational to tenderness and humanity. 

The biggest strength of the screenplay however is how truthful it is to its three primary characters. It never once reduces them to the archetypes of the good cop, bad cop and the grieving mother. With Frances, it never makes her too lovable or open to the typical Hollywood character traits. Similarly, with the character of James, his redemptive arc is never sentimentalized, as a result, you believe in the change, as much as you believe in the brutishness of his character. 

A common staple for any murder mystery is that it usually sets its audiences for a clear cut resolution. In this formula, the hunt for a killer usually results in finding the said killer, and the protagonists seeking justice obtain some kind of closure. I have always wondered what would drive these characters now that they have obtained closure. Sure, justice has been served, but now what? Will they have to now live the rest of their damaged lives without any purpose whatsoever? Is it really a closure then? 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri aims to give its characters a different kind of closure. There is a significant moment in the film where you suspect Frances' character is actually afraid of arriving at that point of closure. Maybe she is just attracted to the idea of her pursuing that closure rather than actually achieving it. It is this very idea that drives her each day, and once she has arrived at that crucial point, there will probably be nothing left to live for. 

Carter Burwell's Oscar nominated score provides each character a distinctive musical signature. For Mildred's character, he orchestrates a mixture of guitar, mandolin and other string instruments into a storm-clap rhythm in order to amplify Mildred's motivation. In scenes where she contemplates her loss, he elicits sympathy for her situation and choices by trading off of guitar, clarinet and piano. 

At it's heart, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a simple story that is layered with unexpected complexities brought out by its three leads. This is a deeply moving film that will stay with the audiences. 

I'm going with 4/5.

Stray Observations :

* Already the third Oscar nominated film this year starring Caleb Landry Jones after Get Out and The Florida Project.


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