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December 11, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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For the record, that’s not some clever title from me, that’s just the title of the movie. And, to be fair, why wouldn’t it be? That’s what the movie’s about: three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Maybe it’s because lately I’ve only been seeing superhero movies, which I’ve been harshly informed are “the avatar of the dearth of creativity in American capitalism” (whatever that means), but Three Billboards really surprised me… in that it wasn’t called “Ebbing, Missouri: Age of Billboards” or “Billboard Battle.”

All jokes aside, I liked this movie and I’m surprised that I did because the title is just one of a couple things that make Three Billboards seem a little “Oscar-baity” on first glance. It’s small, it’s gritty and it tackles some extremely adult themes.

I think in the past I’ve labelled movies similar to this one as “Oscar-baity” because I haven’t understood them and, to be fair to myself, I certainly believe there have been some films that try a little too hard to be cryptic or intentionally divisive but Three Billboards isn’t one of them. Three Billboards handles a laundry list of topics (domestic abuse, police brutality, racism, rape and murder) with commendable restraint and is only bolstered by its great acting.

The last movie I left thinking “well this is an Oscar contender” was La La Land and, if anything, I’m just as confident as I was then that Frances McDormand will get nominated for Best Actress for her part in Three Billboards. I don’t want to say I think she’ll win, as I haven’t seen Lady Bird or The Shape of Water (not to leave someone out, I’m sure there are some other roles that have flown under my radar), but I can’t imagine either Saoirse Ronan or Sally Hawkins being that much better than McDormand was here.

She was truly a powerhouse in this role. The movie had an emotionally charged plot and needed every ounce of McDormand’s excellence to connect with its audience. Mildred Hayes, McDormand’s character, starts the film still in her own kind of thick-skinned grieving after no arrest was made following her daughter’s gruesome rape and murder. Hayes decides to pay for three billboards prodding the local police department to revisit the case. Things heat up as a temperamental, racist cop (Sam Rockwell) and her abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) enter the fold. See what I mean? It would’ve been easy for a lesser film to mishandle this incredibly nuanced plot but Three Billboards nailed it in large part due to McDormand’s masterful rendition of her character.

She was tasked with portraying the the epitome of resilience, standing steadfast for her beliefs when everyone else in the world seemed to be against her and she played it perfectly. She’s strong, fiercely motivated and remarkably vulnerable in what I’d call one of the best acting performances in my recent memory.

I also think that writer and director Martin McDonagh is owed a tremendous amount of credit for the success of this film. It’s true-to-life sounding dialogue and consistently lingering camera takes combine to make the film really pack a punch.

Additionally, I loved Woody Harrelson’s role in this movie. As Officer Willoughby, head of the Ebbings Police Department, Harrelson delivers the closest thing the movie has to “comic relief.” Because of how serious and deep the themes this movie explores are, the small chuckles McDonagh wrote in for Harrelson’s character were crucial in making the film not feel like a slog as it stretched on.

If I’m to nitpick one thing about this movie, it would have to be the ending. No spoilers, I promise. Though it did feel like the spark of tremendous character development for both people involved, it just didn’t feel as solid as I typically want conclusions to be. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need my stories wrapped up with a neat little bow. I love movies that make me think but am less enthusiastic when a movie ends and I’m not quite sure what to think about. For me, the ending of Three Billboards wasn’t just a thinker, but was cryptic and dissatisfying, if only because I was so invested in the film. I really wanted to see what the characters would end up doing!

Now I’m sure I’ve just outed myself as being less intelligent than some of you. I’m sure to some the ending of this movie was as crystal clear as they come, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it today and I’m still not totally sure I’ve got a grasp on its implications. Either way, I really enjoyed the movie and would definitely recommend seeing it, if only to be more in the know when awards season rolls around.

 

Nick Smith is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nsmith@cornellsun.com