THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017, R, 115 minutes, BLUEPRINT PICTURES/20TH CENTURY FOX)
Every year I pinpoint a few performances that, in my humble and slightly informed opinion, deserve Oscars. Usually, according to the Academy, I am wrong.
Like, so wrong that if you went back and counted how many times I have been wrong, you’d probably stop reading my reviews. (So, don’t count, because I think I’m up to eighteen regular readers, and my ego couldn’t handle losing any of you.) This year, I’ve already gushed about performances in WIND RIVER, WONDER WOMAN, LOGAN, and BLADE RUNNER 2049—some of them for acting, some for directing or cinematography.
But THREE BILLBOARDS is kind of a game changer. Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a mother grieving over the loss of her daughter, who rents billboards calling out the town sheriff and the police department’s inability to solve her daughter’s murder. While there is a whole lot of talk about her performance—and it is well deserved, as she is heartbreakingly convincing in her anger and grief—there is one other that slow boils in reverse that makes you wonder at the artistry which is acting. Again, McDormand is great; she captures an emotional place that no parent ever wants to have to deal with. Hers is a brave portrayal of a heartbroken and angry single mother.
And then there is Sam Rockwell. He is best described as a “transformer”—no, not the lifeless, metal encased CGI structures that Michael Bay has sold his soul to. Rockwell is a true artist, one who becomes unlike anything you have ever witnessed. He is, quite frankly, the greatest character actor of my generation, and what he does in BILLBOARDS is nothing short of amazing. He sets aside his typical smarmy humor and becomes a bad cop already on the edge of an explosive breakdown. But he breathes life into a character which, in other hands, would not have been quite as fascinating to behold. From the set of his eyes to the stalwart sense of nobility he attempts to carry throughout, even when he is so obviously in the wrong, Rockwell’s “Dixon” is a man crying out for redemption—or, at least, for a singular purpose other than as a bully.
There really are no weak performances in this film; credit director Martin McDonagh (IN BRUGES, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS—both films you need to watch, if you haven’t already) for getting exactly what he needed from each actor to capture the lives he created. Even Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby is notable, if not for his stoic turn as a cop juggling his family, an illness, and the case of Mildred’s murdered daughter. No single person turns in a wooden or romanticized performance, and it makes for a slice of life which feels real. At times daunting and sublimely violent, other times brutal and devastatingly honest.
So, yeah…I’m calling out at least five Oscars nods for this one (the cinematography of Ben Davis lends a symmetrical beauty to the proceedings, keeping us honest while the story unfolds before us, not allowing you to look away or think beyond what you are witnessing). If I’m wrong YET AGAIN, there is something inherently broken with the system in Hollywood. You don’t get a movie this damn good with bad acting or shoddy storytelling, and there isn’t an ounce of either on display here. Seriously, you couldn’t ask for a better example of the true meaning of filmmaking.
-- T.S. Kummelman