frances_mcdormand-three-billboards

The big winner at Sunday night’s Golden Globe Awards was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), the film won Best Picture, Best Actress (Drama) for Frances McDormand and Best Supporting Actor for Sam Rockwell. Oh, and McDonagh earned Best Director and Best Screenplay honors.

For those who didn’t see the film, that success might leave some pop culture and movie fans a bit curious. But that’s always an issue during this time of year. Critical darlings aren’t always mainstream hits. The movies that get awards aren’t often the ones most people have seen.

Three Billboards got a limited release in early November and slowly rolled out to the rest of the country over the rest of the month. By Thanksgiving, some moviegoers may have been eager to see a film that was drawing awards buzz and looked like a quirky, Coen brothers-type of dark comedy. Yet for mainstream audiences, the movie may also have been lost among the wave of holiday releases like Murder on the Orient ExpressJustice League and Coco, in addition to other awards contenders such as Lady Bird and The Disaster Artist.

The movie might not even be showing in many theaters around the country now, though the Golden Globes honors will probably change that and result in a re-release. If you missed it the first time around, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association got it right. Three Billboards is one of the best movies of the past year.

Frances “Force of Nature” McDormand

No argument here with McDormand’s Best Actress win at the Golden Globes.

Mildred Hayes is the driving force of Three Billboards and McDormand has to carry the movie because of it. Though her acerbic, profane personality is frequently hilarious, she’s not the most likable character. She’s mean to a lot of people, most notably in one heartbreaking instance toward the end of the story.

Plenty of people will believe she can act any way she wants to because she’s a grieving mother who wants justice — and vengeance — but being sympathetic yet unlikable is not always an easy trick for an actor to pull off. Yet McDormand does it masterfully. She also reminds you that maybe, just maybe, she’s in over her head and hasn’t truly thought this situation and its potential ramifications through. That vulnerability is another side of Mildred that McDormand shows in a typically wonderful performance.

McDormand beat out four other outstanding actresses — Jessica Chastain, Sally Hawkins, Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams — in showcase roles for the award. And since the Academy Awards don’t divide the actor categories by drama and comedy like the Globes, the competition will be even more fierce. Saoirse Ronan (who won Best Actress, Musical or Comedy) will likely get a nomination for Lady Bird and Margot Robbie is drawing buzz for her portrayal of Tonya Harding in I, Tonya.

Does the Golden Globes win make her the Oscars favorite? Maybe, though I wonder if more people will gravitate toward Ronan’s Christine McPherson, whose story far more people will relate to. (Personally, my pick would be Hawkins for The Shape of Water, but that’s another article.) McDormand is a familiar name to movie fans, but I wonder if enough people will have seen Three Billboards or if her character is likable enough for Academy voters to support.

This is a very dark film

Though Three Billboards comes off as a comedy, albeit an unusual one, in trailers and commercials, some might be surprised at just how dark the movie is. Ultimately, this is a movie about grief and loss, and trying to make sense of the world after something cherished has been taken away.

Mildred Hayes (McDormand) wants justice for the rape and murder of her daughter Angela, and isn’t happy with the local police’s lack of progress in that investigation. While driving on a back road near town, she sees three decayed billboards that have fallen into disrepair and is inspired to send a message to Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

Rattling Willoughby’s cage also shakes up the small town where Mildred lives. Everyone understands the grief she’s feeling, but they like their police chief and don’t think he deserves to be blamed like this. Understandably, the people of Ebbing have also moved on with their lives. That frustrates Mildred, with which anyone who’s experienced the loss of a loved one can surely sympathize. How can you just go on? Can’t you see what’s happened here? Why aren’t you upset too?

Willoughby is also dealing with a major issue that’s an open secret around town, but doesn’t use that as an excuse for not having solved Angela Hayes’s murder. The investigation turned up nothing. DNA evidence wasn’t a match. He understands Mildred’s anger, but there’s nothing else he can do, barring new evidence turning up or someone confessing to the crime. (Mildred also hopes that restarting the conversation might get someone to admit they saw something or brag about what he did to Angela.)

The weird characters of Ebbing — notably the racist officer Dixon (Rockwell), the young man who runs the marketing company in charge of the billboards (Caleb Landry Jones), or the little person who has a crush on Mildred (Peter Dinklage) — make the movie entertaining, adding plenty of color and personality to the story.

But then McDonagh will remind you that something terrible has happened and it’s not funny at all. He gets you to laugh at the goofy sheriff and his bumbling officer, but then there’s a quick glimpse of the autopsy photos that show Angela Hayes was burned to death after being sexually assaulted. It’s jolting, and those shifts of tone might confuse some viewers. However, unsettling the audience is exactly what McDonagh intends. He’s just using humor as the delivery device for his dark story.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He has covered baseball for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.