Ingrid and I renewed our Cineworld passes as it is the season to go to the movies and check out the Oscar contenders. You nod along sagely while dreaming up superlatives to show how much you agree with the taste-makers. Or you can call such-and-such movie a pretentious load of crap.1
With "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri", it's more the former. But I don't have to say anything pretentious about the cinematography or its timeliness. Most people will recognise those elements. Instead, I can say it is a good film. An enjoyable movie. A flat-out entertaining one in fact.
You might not think so from a summary of the plot. To track down who raped and murdered her daughter, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has three billboards erected outside Ebbing, Missouri. They accuse the Sheriff (Woody Harrelson) of not doing enough to catch the killer. This causes uproar among the town's population, not least a tetchy deputy, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
"Three Billboards..." uses dark humour to deal with dark subjects. The humour is sometimes involuntary: characters bristle against one another and build up tension for a joke to jolt it away with a little blast of static. Other times, the jokes are genuine pratfalls or physical comedy. It is a movie that made me laugh more often and more heartily than I had expected to.
The characters are fascinating. By focussing on a subset of four, maybe five, characters throughout, it often feels like you are watching a play rather than a film. The morals of many characters are outright shady. Mildred, single-minded in her quest for justice, draws you in to her plight and keeps you on her side, even as she does some awful things. The way she sidesteps the hostility of the population is entertaining, yet it's also cringe worthy when she goes too far. Also, if you don't like dentists avoid this film.
"Three Billboards..." asks many questions about gender roles and how we conduct ourselves in civil debate. Is there any substantial difference between three billboards erected on a sleepy road and an outspoken social media post? Is it right that one person can focus public discourse, no matter how justified their cause? How sensible is it to weigh the griefs and sensitivities of one person against those of another? Which crimes can be forgiven?
I don't think the film provides the answers to these questions. The ending is uncertain and feels unfinished. I joked with Ingrid about a sequel called "Four Billboards outside somewhere else". However, it does a mighty job of raising those questions. Plenty of films worse than this one have won the best film Oscar2. It will astound me if Frances McDormand doesn't get the best actress award.3
Part of it is the shame of seeing just eight films with our passes last year. We're on a mission to see that many by mid-February alone.↩
We will see at least two other films nominated for Best Film. ("The Post" and "The Shape of Water".)↩
I admit that I've only seen one Oscar-nommed film so far so I should reserve judgement. However, if you compare Frances McDormand's performance to other great Oscar-winning performances, it must surely be a dead cert.↩