Makers of the critically acclaimed film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, were nominated for seven Academy Awards, among them being the Academy Award for Best Picture. However, despite Three Billboards recently sweeping the BAFTAs, the Oscar for Best Picture was given to The Shape of Water.
Naturally, by no means were any of the nominees for Best Picture undeserving of the award. Gary Oldman offered a riveting performance as (the heroic bumbling buffoon) Sir Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, for which he won “Best Actor”; Oscar staples Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep were back again with The Post, a historical drama centered around the controversy behind press coverage of the Pentagon Papers; Timothée Chalamet, at only 22, returned with a heartbreaking lead role in the coming-of-age romance Call Me By Your Name; and though Christopher Nolan managed to shock us once again with his thrilling cinematography in Dunkirk, it was Guillermo del Toro’s directing in The Shape of Water which ultimately won him the Academy Award for Best Director.
Three Billboards has nothing of this nature. It came in third in nominations, behind The Shape of Water (13) and Dunkirk (8). It had a measly $12 million budget, aging journeyman performers in Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand, an unexceptional Megacritic score, and a 47-year-old British director in Martin McDonagh, who was not even nominated for Best Director and has never even come close so seeing such levels of box office success.
As a matter of fact, the film is so lacking that one could hardly even consider Three Billboards to be a proper dramatic work: it has no “good guy,” no “bad guy,” no climax, and barely a sense of dramatic structure. Yet, somehow, it is precisely what we think is lacking which makes Three Billboards a magnificent work of art—it is not lacking at all; instead, it questions the need for the things which we as movie-goers have come to expect in a drama of its nature. It is revolutionary; if Dunkirk was a home run and The Shape of Water was a grand slam, then Three Billboards changed the ball game entirely.
Throughout its length, the film highlights the futility of anger and hatred. The single scene which remains etched into my mind is of Jason reading Willoughby’s letter inside the police station while Mildred hurls Molotovs at the building in anger after her billboards were burned down. The part of the letter which eventually stuck with Dixon read, “Hate never solved nothing, but calm did, and thought did.” Meanwhile, Mildred vents her anger by burning down the station, unaware that both Dixon and Angela’s case files were inside, thereby demonstrating the counter-productivity of such emotions which Willoughby had pointed to. Dixon, on the other hand, managed to pull himself together, extinguish the case files, and jump out the window.
During Mildred’s date with the town midget after the Molotov incident, Charlie, her abusive ex-husband, walks up to her table to confess to having burned down the billboards and to impart the film’s lasting line of wisdom: “All this anger…it just begets greater anger.” Somehow, this nonchalant statement by a minor character not only artfully summed up the theme of the film, but also managed to speak to the present state of national and global affairs, where anger escalates into greater anger: the demise of realpolitik around the world and the rise of populist forces have demonstrated both the electoral might and the political ineptitude of such angry voices. After Charlie then ruins Mildred’s date, Mildred walks over to Charlie’s table in frustration, with a champagne bottle in hand, ostensibly to injure Charlie. In a brilliant display of irony, Mildred gifts the bottle to Charlie before telling him take care of his new girlfriend.
Three Billboards stands out as a film of full of irony: instead of action, we get signs along a lonesome road; instead of grief, we get dark injections of humor; instead of climactic victory, we get anticlimax; instead of a dramatic one-liner, we get a crude monologue; soft folk rock plays as Red is thrown out a window; Willoughby secretly pays for an additional month on the billboards after his suicide; Mildred throws Molotovs at the police station, unaware of the presence of Dixon inside.
Of course, the film’s most striking divergence from mainstream dramas—the lasting legacy for which Three Billboards will be immortalized as a film classic—is the way in which it challenges the audiences’ preconceptions of good and evil, as Three Billboards intentionally loses its antagonist(s) along the way.
In the introduction, Dixon is portrayed as a bigoted, reactionary, and violent loser; meanwhile, Willoughby is thought to be vulgar, authoritarian, and complicit in the crimes of his racist officer. However, as the film progresses, Willoughby is revealed through his suicide notes to be a loving father and an honorable police chief. His note left for Dixon then inspires Dixon to also transform into as a respectable, albeit unemployed, “dipshit.” Through Willoughby’s sudden suicide and Dixon’s subsequent face turn, the film is left without a “bad guy” to root against.
On the other hand, Mildred’s status as a benevolent hero wanes as we begin to question the morality behind putting up defamatory billboards to attack a dying and dignified public servant. Her desire for answers leads her down an increasingly destructive path, which many thought culminated in the firebombing of the police station which landed Dixon in the hospital.
At its heart, I think this film pushes audiences to abandon those preconceptions they hold onto, in and outside the theater. In the beginning, the filmmakers seem to contrast a benevolent protagonist and a band of villainous antagonists, with a hard line drawn in the sand between the two conflicting parties. Yet, by the end scene, the lines in the sand had faded away. This is perhaps the most confusing and conflicting scene: Dixon has ceased to be an antagonist by joining forces with Mildred, but as they drive out together towards uncertainty, it dawns on the viewer that the thing Mildred and Dixon are uncertain about doing is morally repugnant.
This, in my view, is the most important lesson to take away from Three Billboards: where our worldviews consist of black and white pixels, the film challenges us to zoom out to see the gray. At a time when politics exists in polarization and partisan hackery, where people are divided by tribalism and instinctively take sides along ideological lines, Three Billboards reminds us to take a step back, to see a larger picture, before making such knee-jerk judgments. This was the beauty of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for which it deserved Best Picture.