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Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell Give Two of the Best Performances of the Year in Three Billboards

Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that will likely stir a lot of controversy because of its language, because it’s not always politically correct at a time when the talk surrounding movies pay especially close attention to potential triggers. Nonetheless, the performances are so good — especially the lead, Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell — that it will be hard to ignore come awards time. McDormand is a gift to the art of acting. She always has been. The list of her great roles is endless. It stretches out for miles and miles and we see in her a woman who has never lacked confidence in herself for not fitting the Hollywood stereotype of perfection. Watching McDormand mature over the years and find new voices for the characters she inhabits has been a singularly delightful experience. In Three Billboards, her Mildred is a cantankerous, angry woman whose daughter has been raped and murdered. If she already had a baseline of low tolerance for the mostly racist, sexist community where she lives, this tragedy propels her into a whole new realm of fury — as it would anyone. The depth of tragedy is unimaginable, to be sure. When no arrests are made she puts up three large billboards accusing local law enforcement of doing nothing. It embarrasses the sheriff (Woody Harrelson in a role that’s too small for awards attention, though he’s always great), and enrages the whole town. her outrage most especially energizes a young deputy played by Sam Rockwell.

The furious grieving mother and deputy who’s determined to help her seek justice are the matched centers of gravity in Three Billboards, revolving around one another as they navigate through their own imperfections — both battling their own inclination towards anger and inability to control their rage. They are mirror images of each other, though they sit on different sides of what we might think about as Americans — the left and the right. That is an overly simplistic definition of both the characters and the opposing poles of America, but the general idea is that he holds onto viewpoints of the old confederacy and she represents the attitude that rejects it. Although never called out as blatantly racist, Rockwell’s character is a product of his wrongheaded upbringing. His transformation, therefore, is the film’s most notable. His work is astonishing from beginning to end. I suspect that awards for supporting actor might come down to Willem Dafoe vs. Sam Rockwell, though Dafoe will have the slight advantage since he plays a man who’s purely altruistic and not someone in need of redemption as Rockwell is.

Three Billboards is steeped in pitch black humor, as though a Quentin Tarantino movie mated with a Joel and Ethan Coen movie. You’re not quite sure, at times, whether you should be laughing at some of the stuff the characters say. That reaction will vary from person to person, though clearly it wasn’t any sort of problem when the film won the Audience Award at Toronto. Timely, provocative, brilliantly written and directed, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is indeed one of the best films of the year.