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Every award season has an early favorite that, for no apparent reason, loses steam over time just so the Oscars can be competitive despite being the last in a slate of ceremonies. It’s as if people just grew tired of voting for The Revenant, Avatar, or the many others who’ve fallen victim to this trend. This year, that early winner is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film’s success must be as tedious as its title to the many who foresee a not so surprise upset for The Shape of Water to end our big night.
But what does Three Billboards actually deserve? Most of this year’s nominees have floated around the forgettable to pretty good range for me, and Three Billboards sits at the top of that mediocre tier. That may be too harsh. It’s a gripping story that has its moments and impressive acting across the board. But I’d argue the tone hits and misses.
In the grand scheme of Martin McDonagh films, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths sit in this beautifully quirky corner where humor blends seamlessly into dark situations. Three Billboards, while equally effective in small doses, is more tonally confused throughout a story that seems like it should either be more or less serious. The humor, which doesn’t always hit, sometimes breaks the momentum of what could’ve been a superior drama. And the legitimately hilarious exchanges stop short whenever Mildred’s grim reality reclaims your attention.
Some of my all-time favorites are built from inappropriately timed humor and sharp changes in tone. In theory, I should embrace this movie’s issues and consider them strengths. It’s difficult to place the difference between an awkward Three Billboards scene and Jack Nicholson saying “he fell funny” after executing a man in the early stages of The Departed. I love one but not the other. The secret might just be in the imperfect writing, a problem foreign to Scorsese projects. Three Billboards, granted it does have a number of simpler-minded characters, struggles with a surprising amount of clunky dialogue and exchanges that don’t resemble real people. And if it’s all for comedic effect, I can say it’s only occasionally funny.
Any issues I had with Three Billboards come from the overall flow of one scene to the next. Those minor issues stack up and create a setting that’s awkward in both the right and wrong ways. With all that said, any one scene or scenario in this movie connects pretty strongly on either the humorous or emotional front. There are some great laughs throughout the film, and some equally weighty feels.
Saved by the Cast
Almost all of that sequence-by-sequence impact comes from the cast, as they tweak characters that really could’ve gone either way. I’ve got performances I prefer over the odds-on favorite, but Frances McDormand’s sweeping success at these award shows is no mystery. She takes on a tremendous role and brings more humanity than I would’ve expected to a rough-edges personality.
Sam Rockwell is an even clearer winner, as there has never been a more complicated take on a simpler human being. Audiences are conditioned to enjoy when good people do bad things, but a bad person doing something good presents a greater viewing challenge. The fact that people don’t quite know how to receive this character is a good sign for nuanced storytelling.
Three Billboards is ultimately a different, daring take on material that more straightforward films use to preach. This one just puts evil on display, scatters some necessary evil in between, and lets you sift through it all to determine which is which. It’s a bumpy ride, as the script stumbles over its own feet trying to do ten things at once. But the underlying premise and story are interesting enough to earn an audience’s forgiveness here and there. If Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri does manage to win again, it’d be a fine Best Picture in a relatively unremarkable year.