By Barry Lord @bazneto
Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a classic.
A key movie of the year, possibly of the decade. A big claim to make and because all art comes down to subjectivity and taste, I would expect plenty of pushback.
The film has swept several of the major prizes at the Golden Globes and SAG (Screen Actors Guild) awards, including best actress for Frances Mcdormand in the lead role of Mildred Hayes, the embittered mother whose pursuit of justice for the rape and murder of her teenage daughter forms the catalyst of the story that beautifully unfolds.
There is something timely in the release of a film with a powerful female protagonist at odds with an ineffectual (not to mention, male-dominated) and prejudiced police force and, make no mistake, this idea will not be lost on the Academy of voters.
That it should also be released at a time when the social media driven #MeToo movement continues to make headlines is perhaps not accidental.
The movement has been successful in calling out perpetrators of sexual abuse among some of Hollywood’s biggest power players – most notably producer Harvey Weinstein. It has given a platform to victims all but forgotten by Tinsel town.
It has its critics too, rightly or wrongly, but now it has a movie – a certain contender for best picture – to throw its considerable weight behind.
However, it must be said that Three Billboards… is more than just a movie of its time.
Sure, it was made last year but it manages to somehow transcend the era in which it was produced. Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, it is a movie that is no more about 2017 than those films were about the respective periods they were made (1974 and 1986).
Its themes of loss, injustice and the debilitation which vengeful desire inflicts on the victim and their family are timelessly universal and its sense of tragedy is almost mythological (Think Shakespeare or Seneca).
But we must not forget the humour, for if you are aware of McDonagh’s previous work in film (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) and on stage (The Pillowman, the Beauty Queen of Leenane) it will come as no surprise to learn that once again, the writer/director finds light in seemingly all-pervasive darkness.
Religion is a familiar target to hit in McDonagh’s work and the scene in which Mildred clashes with the local priest is scabrous, incisive and blackly funny. In other words, vintage McDonagh.
Being a playwright first and foremost, he also believes in character and he gives the people who inhabit this town layers. Sam Rockwell’s brilliant portrayal of lunk-headed, racist deputy Sheriff Dixon is one example.
Beneath the exterior of this ‘momma’s boy’ is a belittled middle-aged man who perhaps only needed a word of encouragement in his early life to change the person he is today. He doesn’t ask for sympathy – like most of the characters here – but we, the audience, offer it eventually.
Despite the fine turns of Rockwell and Woody Harrelson’s tragic Chief Willoughby, the film ultimately belongs to Mcdormand and like her star-making turn in 1995’s Fargo, she delivers the goods in spades.
Mildred knows she is powerless, her only weapons are words and those incendiary statements she leaves on the rickety billboards on the disused highway represent defiance in the face of abject helplessness.
Her character tests our sympathy at times – her apparent lack of consideration for the feelings of her remaining son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) stands out – but we believe in her.
She is a person with flaws but plenty of heart, despite her wounds, and we share her incredulity at her fellow townsfolk who begin to see her as a pariah little better than the monster that violated her child.
Perhaps the Oscar ceremony on March 4th will see the film richly rewarded. Perhaps not. But as much as we’d like to see an Irish triumph (McDonagh is from London but also of Sligo and Galway stock) a possible dearth of golden statues on the night will not diminish its greatness and it will be rightly lauded in time as the masterpiece it is.