Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a black comedy wrapped in a seething drama set against the backdrop of small town Americana. Seven months after the death of her daughter Angela, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents out three billboards on the outskirts of town lambasting the local chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for the lack of any real progress in solving the brutal murder. The small town life is portrayed effectively here as its filled with an odd cast of characters that all know each other, which also means that they have to live with each other and that comes with its own set of juggling eccentricities and tolerating ideals. This is a foul mouthed film about grief and sadness, when anger can be useful or harmful, and how assumptions about a person can be misguided, incorrect, or just plain insulting.
Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes is a fantastically multifaceted character. She’s justifiably angered by the police station’s failing efforts in solving the case of her daughter’s horrific murder. She’s justice incarnate when she decides to go on the warpath against certain individuals. Though as the film progresses she’s shown to be vulnerable, at times physically, but emotionally as well. In a couple moments when the anger has quelled and her fists uncurled, she’s even portrayed as a quirky but caring mother. Woody Harrelson’s police chief Bill Willoughby may seem like a caricature at the outset of the film, but Harrelson goes a long way to imbue the small town chief as a man of many layers. He may seem brash and eccentric, but once the film digs a little deeper into who chief Willoughby actually is we find a far humbler and complex individual lying underneath those immediate projections. Peter Dinklage’s character also poignantly reflects the idea that assumptions, at face value, can be wildly misinformed and he checks Mildred on her own biases later in the film which only continues her path towards a softening of her reactive and violent grief.
While reading reviews and articles on the film after viewing it, I came across the supposed controversy surrounding Sam Rockwell’s character Dixon, a neanderthal of a police officer with a penchant for racial biases and poorly thought out reactions. If you watch this film and believe it to be racist in nature because of this character’s arc, then you haven’t been paying attention. Dixon is repeatedly beaten, mocked by his peers and others, and is never given redemption for his generally awful behavior and actions. In the second half of the film this character is given an acknowledgement from Chief Willoughby that sets him on the path towards becoming a better person, but Dixon isn’t forgiven, he’s simply given a chance to do the right thing, this does not mean that he’s the ‘hero‘ of the story though if that’s what you’re thinking.
I was particularly impressed with how well the film balanced it’s dark material with comedy through the consistently realistic tone and each character’s reaction to tragedy. This wouldn’t have been possible if the humanity of these characters hadn’t been depicted as efficiently as they were. Just as we each harbor the light and darkness within ourselves, these characters are fallible and just, righteous but selfish, reactionary and meditative all the same. This film showcased a genuine humanity that is seldom seen on the silver screen, and its that much better for it.
The whole point of the story is that while anger has its place, it can only accomplish so much. Mildred’s cathartic anger from the grief she’s still experiencing after her daughter’s death may have launched the story and gotten the police to reopen the case, but it cannot heal you or cure your grief. Chief Willoughby plants the unexpected seeds of love in the characters that need it most and it is through his actions and acknowledgements that they slowly begin to realize that love and empathy might just be a better outcome than directing our anger at the problems in our lives. The film begins by showing Mildred’s righteous anger as completely justified, and even a bit intoxicating, therefore putting us on her side, but later in the film when Dixon lashes out in anger from his own grief we witness the ugly side of that same dichotomy. This is kind of brilliant because it makes us question what we previously rooted for. After Dixon’s outburst the film puts an emphasis on loosening the grip that anger can clasp so firmly in people’s hearts. Chief Willoughby even acknowledges that the most irredeemable characters can be salvaged if given the right motivation and opportunities through love. This is a powerful message to have in a film at this time. The film isn’t arguing that righteous anger cannot be useful or that it isn’t justified, but that progress cannot be made if you never let go of your anger. Understanding and empathy are the ways forward.
Final Score: Three Billboards, Four Molotov Cocktails
*The independent article on the “controversy” surrounding Sam Rockwell’s character is linked below and I suggest giving it a read if you’re still unsure of the film. However, there are spoilers within, read at your own caution: