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Academy Award Frontrunner ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ Loses Its Potential

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at BU chapter.

Playwright-turned-screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh takes on a lot in his latest film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and its recognition during this awards season proves that critics enjoy it. In his fourth credited film as a director, McDonagh’s picture has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Frances McDormand, Best Supporting Actor for Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, and Best Motion Picture, which remains a frontrunner alongside The Shape of Water

Picture Credit: The Atlantic 

With months passing without any leads on who murdered her daughter, the tough Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) decides to rent three billboards accusing Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) of doing nothing to find the killer. Painted boldly in red and black, each billboard reads in order “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, and finally, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

The billboards regarding Mildred’s daughter’s death start larger conflicts within the small town of Ebbing, Missouri, especially when deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) becomes involved. The large reaction of the billboards reveals more in deep the personal complications of each character including Mildred, Bill, and Jason in their efforts of understanding tragedy.

McDonagh mediates a lot between the comedy within tragedy and then the tragedy within tragedy –– yet this does not always work out in his favor. In fact, McDonagh has faced much criticism in his portrayal of Jason Dixon, a racist deputy who is censured for his violence and hatred towards African-American men. However, it is not Rockwell’s racist character which has caused controversy, but rather his redemption arc, where audience members are led to understand and even like Dixon.

While this is the major controversy surrounding the picture, Jason Dixon isn’t the only element holding this film back from being great. Particularly the screenplay, though nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, faces issues of being too dull. The story starts with Mildred finding justice for her daughter, but slowly strays away. Viewers especially follow Mildred, Chief Willoughby, and Jason, but their relationships seem irrelevant and unimportant by the end. 

Picture Credit: The Atlantic

What Three Billboards is being mainly recognized for is the acting, though most of the dialogue between characters is basic. Some scenes allude to later plot points, but so plainly that it becomes laughable. However, the stellar cast of Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson do not disappoint in their portrayal of characters who often fall short of their capability. Rockwell, Harrelson, and especially McDormand anchor down whatever potential is left within a film that is limited in its work.

While Frances McDormand plays a strong woman seeking justice for her silenced daughter, every other female character, unfortunately, lacks any sort of importance or substance in their depiction. Though McDormand is the center of this film, other characters who clearly have no significance or genuinely good qualities lessen the creation of this cast of characters.

McDonagh had a great idea for the screenplay of Three Billboards, but along the way lost the core of its story. The justice for Mildred’s daughter turns into her fixation on her three billboards, and while this may have been McDonagh’s intention, it somewhat escapes the idea that a girl was raped and murdered. For a film that centers around a sensitive and serious story, McDonagh moves away from the entire emotion of it all.

Cover Photo Credits: Vox


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Callie is double majoring in English and Cinema and Media Studies at Boston University. Outside of writing for HerCampus, her interests include watching movies, reading, skiing, and beauty. She is a Boston native. 
Writers of the Boston University chapter of Her Campus.