In the Shape of Three Billboards: When a mute rebel meets a raucous anarchist

(From left) The Shape of Water and Three Billboards

The tough contest between Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water to bag top laurels at the Oscars award ceremony has already been dubbed as the epic fight where a single mom takes on a monster. The two films—one that deals with the tenacious efforts of a woman who is up against a lustreless police force that fails to arrest her daughter's killer, and another, a fantasy tale of love where a woman goes up against an unkind world to save a monster she falls in love with—have won quite a few awards. Come award night, the two are likely to grab top honors; the only question is how many each would take home. I, for one, have hedged my bets on Mildred Hayes, whose imaginative, but unorthodox measure for justice won the hearts of viewers and critics alike. 

Directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards...is the story of a courageous mother who decides to take matters into her hands when she realises that little progress has been made by the police in the probe into the rape and murder of her daughter. Her unorthodox method to get the attention of the police department—renting three billboards—doesn't go down well with the people in her sleepy town. The film dissects how the one-woman army of Mildred stands up against the town despite realising that her chances of getting justice are scarce, while throwing up a slew of surprises—some fairly pleasant, others disturbing. 

The Shape of Water— a magical tale of love that is as old as the hills, helmed by director Guillermo del Toro—is about a mute woman, Elisa Esposito, who works as a night-time janitor in a secret government facility in Baltimore in the Cold War era. Her life takes an unpredictable turn when she forms a bond with a humanoid-amphibian in her workplace. She embarks on a daring rescue mission when she learns the facility's plans for the monster and what follows is a predictable, yet delectable, sequence of events. 

The two films that seem to share no shred of a common thread in terms of plot, setting or narration, could have more in common than a cursory first watch would reveal. For one, both films are about a crusade undertaken by women, against a system and society that is immune to female pain, angst and loss. 

Both Mildred and Elisa are broken and abandoned; the former because of the loss of her daughter, and Elisa because of her difficulty in coping with a world that has been unkind to her because of her inability to speak. And when they wage war, they are unstoppable. Their tenacity may even come across as unreasonable to many. 

Mildred is vocal, and her hurt, rage and violence are palpable. Elisa, on the other hand, is more discreet. But the lengths they are capable of going, when push comes to shove (Mildred torches a police station, Elisa hides a monster in her bathroom), borders on the outrageous. Did anyone say hell hate no fury like a woman scorned, or rather silenced?

There's an unmissable common link that runs through the battles waged by Elisa and Mildred. Up against them are men who want them to bow down and bow out. Elisa's nemesis is a Colonel Richard Strickland—a man who the films shows only in missionary position in his passionless coitus—while Mildred is up against men who are racist (Jason Dixon), unfaithful ( her ex-husband Charlie Hayes) and unsympathetic (the priest who urges to pull the billboards down). Their fight, then, is more allegorical than theatrical.

Both the stories—one magical and the other as real and grounded as cinematic realism permits—are interspersed with moments of tenderness and madness. There's tenderness and grace in Mildred despite her all-consuming rage and propensity for violence. You see Mildred in her full fury, ready to threaten, abuse, fight and steamroll over anyone who stands in her way. But when Sheriff Bill Willoughby, the man against whom she erects three billboards, coughs blood while questioning her, she hugs him, saying 'Oh, baby'—all acrimony forgotten, all bitterness evaporated. Elisa's world revolves around two of her friends, and she shares a less than cordial relationship with everyone around her. If they are hostile to her, she is almost immune to their presence. She, however, is the sole friend to her next-door neighbor Giles—a struggling gay artist. Her hostility is to a world that treats her with total indifference, but she is an affable, kindly soul to the ones who she has granted permission penetrate her silent, lonely self. 

For all madness and chaos that prevail till the end, there's light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The morality of the path they choose in the end may be questionable, at least to those who like to maintain the status quo. But redemption, possibly justified in a purely cinematic sense, is inevitable. You are not sure if these two women will have their own ‘happily ever-after’, but that seldom matters, at least to them. Elisa’s love triumphs in the end, even if you begin to wonder about the eventual fate of her amorous affairs with a monster. Mildred may not have gotten the justice she wanted, but her rage and frustration that eventually leads to a sense of serenity and forgiveness although she isn’t exactly going on a pleasure trip in the end. But the light is real, at least to both Mildred and Elisa.