Monday, November 27, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

"Raped while dying. And still no arrests. How come, Chief Willoughby?" That is the central question being asked in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri", the latest work from director Martin McDonagh. Answering that question gets complicated however, in this timely and resonant drama.

The three billboards bearing this question were placed by a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a devastated mother seeking justice for a daughter. Living in a town where a laid-back attitude permeates throughout society, she hopes it will bring more attention and stir up some urgency. So said, so done. The billboards cause a commotion in the community and gains attention in the local media. But not everyone is on her side. The police department feels unfairly chastised, especially the Chief (played by Woody Harrelson) and others like Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who had already been in the news for a case of police brutality. Furthermore, the locals feel a sense of loyalty to their Chief, who is seen as a role model in the community. But Mildred will stop at nothing to bring her daughter's murderers to justice.

As the determined Mildred, Frances McDormand delivers what will likely become one of her signature roles (and a possible Best Actress-winning performance). There's a riveting bombast to her straight-shooting defiance that masks a deeply felt pain over her loss. As she rages against the machine that is the patriarchy and indirectly, white supremacy, you can't help but root for her.

Indeed, McDonagh's brilliant screenplay takes on metaphorical power in its scathing condemnation of American society. Whether through a razor-sharp monologue about the nature of culpability or highlighting ineptitude and complacency in the broken justice system, it gives voice to the voiceless.

And yet, there's also a humane comfort to this story. "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is undoubtedly a Martin McDonagh film, primarily evident through its irreverent humor. In that regard, Woody Harrelson's Chief Willoughby and Sam Rockwell's dimwit Dixon are fascinating characters. Particularly the latter, as McDonagh's Oscar-worthy original screenplay peels back the layers of his hate. And Rockwell's detailed performance is worthy of every Best Supporting Actor recognition he'll get during this awards season.

Directed, written and performed to perfection, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" depicts an arresting crusade (nominations for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing should be forthcoming). But its ultimate message is more disarming than a simplistic tale of vengeance. Indeed, it is one of empathy, even in the worst of times. As such, it is one of the most urgent and relevant films you could watch right now. And it would likely remain so in March 2018, where it would make for a fine Best Picture winner indeed.

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