Oscar Quest Movie Review: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Seven Nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay. Directed by Martin McDonagh.
In the beginning of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, Red Welby, the guy in charge of the billboard company, is reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. We get two chances to catch this and any English major worth the degree must agree that we have to take this as a clue to the meaning of the events that follow.
O’Connor’s characters (referred to by analysts as “grotesques”), often smug, racist and self-righteous, believe themselves to be worthy of redemption because they are Christian, white and not dirt poor. They are capable of treating others horribly, but justify this because they believe that their moral code makes them superior. It also keeps them separate and alone. They sometimes experience moments of clarity that shake their worlds, moments of grace that come in times of crisis. They realize in these moments that their world view is artificial and stupid and they must learn (though often temporarily) to open their hearts and to accept the worthiness of others—and the imperfections in themselves. This can change them for the better, or it can just make their lives unlivable.
In Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri, there is enough guilt and grief and regret and vindictiveness and grotesque behavior for a whole volume of O’Connor stories. These people do horrible, unthinkable things to themselves and each other. But, in their angry, hopeless search for justice and redemption, there are moments of clarity—O’Connor would call it grace—that prove that life has value and that living is worth all that we have to go through to keep on doing it.
Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes is a force of nature in this film, seeking justice for the unsolved murder of her daughter. Powerless to change anything, she has to do something, so she buys billboards and puts up signs that blame the local police chief for her unbearable lack of closure. This sets off a chain of events that reveals many characters’ capability for vindictiveness and violence. But it also reveals their humanity and capacity for forgiveness. As in O’Connor stories, moments of crisis often bring moments of clarity and it is in those moments when characters can find a way to go on even in the face of the unthinkable. And that is what happens here.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a study in character. We become immersed in this world and feel sympathy for people who are not, on the surface, particularly sympathetic. But we may find them to be more like us than we’d like to think and that is why, in our own moments of clarity, we understand them and forgive them.
The quality of this film rests in the hands of its script and its actors. Its three actor nominations, best picture nod and original screenplay nomination show where the strengths of Three Billboards lie. It’s those things about movies that I find the most valuable—the words that make a solid, compelling story and the people who say them. These are the hardest things about a movie, I think, to get right. It so seldom happens that when it does, like now, we need to notice.
Oh, and keep an eye on Red Welby.