Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Written & Directed by Martin McDonagh
Mildred Hayes isn’t even a year into mourning the rape and murder of her daughter when she strikes upon an idea. She rents the three billboards just outside of her town of Ebbing and posts the following message:
“Raped while dying.”
“Still no arrests?”
“How come, Chief Willoughby?”
The billboards immediately draw the ire of the local law who see Mildred as being unreasonable and lacking understanding of their point of view in the investigation. Officer Jason Dixon, a cop rumored to have tortured a black suspect while in custody, is particularly angered and attempts to circumvent the law to get the billboards taken down to no avail. The community begins to disparage Mildred for this choice, but she holds fast believing that she can find some sort of redemption for her daughter.
Three Billboards is a surprisingly complex film, that may not appear as such at first. While it would be easy to see this as a film about Mildred Hayes (played with perfect craft by Frances McDormand), it is just as much about Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Each of these three characters makes choices in their lives that lead to the resolution of the film, yet we’re left with ambiguity about each one. Three Billboards isn’t a revenge film like it feels like at first, but a story about forgiveness, mainly being able to forgive ourselves in the face of such profound grief and pain.
A flashback about halfway through the picture gives us our one and only glimpse of Angela Hayes before her murder. The scene is an argument between Mildred and her daughter that ends with the teenager shouting out of frustration due to not be given the car that she hopes she gets raped having to walk into town. Mildred shouts back she hopes she gets raped too. It’s never made clear if this was the night it happened and I don’t necessarily think that it was. For Mildred, on reflection she naturally feels guilt about this exchange, probably wondering what she could have said differently.
But Mildred isn’t wrong in wanting legal justice for her daughter. Chief Willoughby eventually pays her a visit and tries to explain the technicalities of investigation; how the DNA found didn’t match any arrested in town or the whole country, so it makes it much harder to pin down the rapist. Mildred doesn’t want to hear the reasons why she just wants her daughter’s death to not be dismissed so easily by the authorities.
From this comes a compelling examination of what it means to be “good.” Willoughby is considered a “good” man by the community. He has a loving wife and two daughters, is never shown to be abusive. He even reveals he has pancreatic cancer and prognosis is not good. He is an entirely sympathetic character because of how he presents himself. Mildred doesn’t go into the world with the hopes of making people like her. She shows disregard to how her actions affect others around her. Her son learns the details of his sister’s murder via her billboards and is enraged at Mildred because his intent was not to know how she died. The film never states with clarity who is right and who is wrong, instead that both Mildred and Willoughby are unable to communicate to each other in a way that creates a resolution.
Sam Rockwell’s Dixon is the most complex and complicated character to deal with. He receives almost no repercussions for his violent, hateful actions. He seems to take a dark pride in his racism. In the third act he finally appears to get his comeuppance, but then the film takes an unexpected route, and Dixon’s story is tied up shockingly. Like most things in Three Billboards, the answers are not clear, and events are not wrapped up in a nice neat manner. I would expect this film to press some buttons and I believe that was the intent. Three Billboards in asking questions it wants you to answer and justify.