With seven nominations in the Academy Awards 2018, British-Irish filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” stands 3rd in terms of highest nominations received by a film in this year’s Oscar race.
Although nominated for best picture, best screenplay, best actress, best supporting actor, and other significant technical fields, the film fell short by a single nomination to Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” which is 2nd in the leader-board and by six nominations to Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” which is 2018’s top.
Beginning his career as a theatre playwright, McDonagh has come a long way in writing, producing and directing films and has now successfully secured 2 Oscar nominations for himself as well – for best picture and best screenplay. McDonagh directed his first full length film called “In Burges” in 2008 but he found his biggest breakthrough with the release of “Seven Psychopaths” in 2012. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has now added a further dimension to his career which has already received numerous appreciations along with multiple awards from Golden Globe Awards, BAFTA Awards, AACTA International Awards and from several significant other societies and institutions. Like almost all of the films that McDonagh has directed, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” too has a crime theme wrapped up with dark humour.
Martin McDonagh’s piercingly pleasurable tragicomedy is all about anguish and acceptance, vengeance and violence which revolves around a deeply grieved middle-aged mother called Mildred Hayes. The character Mildred, played by the magnificent Frances McDormand single-handedly challenges the local authorities to solve a murder and bring justice to light. Mildred, the separated mother-protagonist, works as a saleswoman in an uninviting gift shop and lives with her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) while her unaccountable husband Charlie (John Hawkes) left her to be with a 19-year-old woman employed at the town zoo, a place which does not appear in the film.
Nine months before from the time where the film starts, a terrible event shook up the entire town called Ebbing, Missouri. Mildred’s daughter Angela was allegedly raped and then murdered on her way back to home from a hangout. Even after nine months since the horrific incident took place, the Ebbing Police Department was unable to identify a single suspect. Being utterly frustrated and enraged by this failure, Mildred rented three worn out billboards just outside the town by the highway and put 3 separate messages which read “Raped while dying”, “Still no arrests?”, “How come, Chief Willougby?” The three billboards not only serve the purpose as cathartic markers to her anger and anguish, but also serves to draw attention of the local media in order to put pressure on the local authorities. Willoughby, the sheriff of Ebbing Police Department, played by Woody Harrelson seems to be honest and responsible who coolly declines to be provoked and agitated by it. Whereas his colleague Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an incompetent, racist deputy takes a completely opposite view and counts that as an insult. So, these three billboards played as catalysts for accelerating and crafting crises throughout the film.
Martin McDonagh’s brilliance shines when it comes to projecting the raw through a series of tit-for-tat revenge ploys into motion. He reveals the characters Harrelson and Rockwell to be more complex than expected and invites the audience to get involved in the investigation themselves. By Shooting in western North Carolina (replicating Missouri), McDonagh produces a small Southern American town which is half utopian and half real. He incorporates the iconic marker of American landscape – the roadside billboards and shows us that their purpose is not only limited to as a means of advertisement but also to can be used as a medium for protests as well.
McDonagh, coming from a theatre background, likes to dwell among dark humour, indie and pulp. For such, his depiction of certain themes make the audience both scream as well as laugh at the “pinteresque” terrible human behaviour and fate. In the film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, McDonagh grasps the full attention of the audience through his shades of darker comedy and twisted storyline. His psychopathic treatment of the characters never fails to amaze the audience throughout the film.
Although having many critical appreciation of the plot and the uncanny treatment, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has had backlashes due to its problematic representation of racism. Some critiques argue that the film fails to offer any meaningful development for black characters or takes place in a seemingly utopian world where white, blonde teen murder victims are ignored by the 24 hour news cycle, or that it forces audience to waste more time sympathising with racist and sexist characters instead of the victims of racism and sexism. McDonagh’s empathetic treatment of the racist cop character Dixon (Sam Rockwell) can be found in the film who is seen to be redeemed as the film progresses even after being a person of colour-torturing.
McDonagh addressed the backlash regarding the racism and said that the controversy mostly comes from “the idea of Sam Rockwell’s character, who’s a racist, bigoted” deputy. “I don’t think his character is redeemed at all – he starts off as a racist jerk. He’s the same pretty much at the end, but, by the end, he’s seen that he has to change. There is room for it, and he has, to a degree, seen the error of his ways, but in no way is he supposed to become some sort of redeemed hero of the piece,” he added. McDonagh pointed out that the film is supposed to be a “messy and difficult” one because the world is “messy and difficult” too.
Apart from some of these criticisms, the film has been well received by the audience and the concept of protesting through billboards have been viral from Miami to London and beyond. Getting inspired from the film, activists have adopted the Three Billboards approach to public-shame Florida Senator Marco Rubio for his money-taking from the National Rifles Associations and, in London, demand action in the horrific Grenfell Tower public housing fire. Those three billboards mounted in three different trucks read - “slaughtered in school”, "And still no gun control?”, “How come, Marco Rubio?” as a protest to the gun control law.
What makes the “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” stand out among other films is that the story is able to strike the chord of audience’s psyche with its grotesque yet comedic circuit, and can cause tensions in the ethical muscles of the viewers’ minds. It is a film that repeatedly prompts one to further probe in one’s own responses to it – not only regarding what makes one laugh but also how the characters in the film defy one’s expectations. For such reasons the film is giving a tough fight to other Oscar nominees. The rest can only be known on the 4th of March.
G Son Bishwas is a film enthusiast and a student of English Literature at Jahangirnagar University