Overview: A small Midwestern town is thrown into chaos when a grieving mother puts up three billboards accusing the local authorities of incompetence in their investigation of her daughter’s rape and murder. Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2017; Rated R; 115 minutes.
[Warning: Includes spoilers]
The Personal Heresy: The genius of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri rests in a single scene about thirty minutes in. Local gift-shop cashier Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has been dragged into the police station by Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) on a charge of assaulting a dentist with his drill during a routine check-up. Mildred defiantly denies it, daring the beleaguered sheriff to call her bluff, mocking him with words still slurred by Novocaine. Bill resigns himself for a long, ugly fight. But then, they’d already been fighting for several weeks since she put up those damned billboards. The gall of it. Three giant red billboards that read “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Not that he can blame her. People do strange things in grief. The way her daughter had been abducted, assaulted, and abandoned still haunts him, as does the lack of evidence six months later. But this assault is too much, even if it was in self-defense as he suspects. The billboards have done little for her popularity with the other townsfolk.
He leans over to yell when a shotgun blast of blood and phlegm sprays from his mouth into her face. They freeze. They both knew he was sick with cancer. But not this sick. Not this soon. Tears well in his eyes. “I didn’t mean—“ he stammers. And in a flash the hatred and malice in Mildred’s eyes vanish. Her voice becomes soft and scared. “That’s alright baby, I know, I know,” she coos before rushing for help.
Anyone can write a monstrous character. It is another thing entirely to write a character who chooses to become one. In this scene we see her let her guard down for just a moment, just long enough for us to see the lonely, wounded human being beneath. The Mildred who once was. The Mildred who will probably never be again. For she has killed her. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that whoever fights monsters should take care not to become one themselves. Mildred Hayes has counted on it.
A Grief Observed: Three Billboards is an astonishing portrait of grief in its many forms. The film might be centered on Mildred, but it’s actually an informal triptych about three lost individuals grappling with loss and disappointment. Mildred is the most prominent: in her anguish she relinquishes her humanity to become an avatar of fury, lashing out at anybody within her grasp, even her depressed son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges). Listening to his stories of being assaulted and bullied at school in retribution for the billboards, she sighs and stares into the distance. She knows she must do what she must do. The second lost individual is Bill, an essentially good man forced by his job to sometimes do bad things. Or at the very least, to look the other way when members of his staff “misbehave.” His death haunts him—not so much the prospect of a slow and painful decay, but the thought of cheating his wife of a husband and his daughter of a father. With Mildred’s billboards also come the thought of his own worthlessness as a police officer. Why couldn’t he catch the killer? Is Mildred right about him?
But the third subject is the most unexpected. When we meet officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), he seems out of place amidst the cast of supremely nuanced characters. Cartoonishly racist, aggressively incompetent, and prone to violent fits, he seems more like a reject from the Police Academy franchise than a plausible human being. When we see him reading a comic book at his desk, we marvel that he can even read at all. He takes Mildred’s billboards as a personal affront to Bill, the police department, and to himself. In one of the film’s most chilling scenes, he cavalierly assaults someone employed by the advertising agency owning the billboards. In broad daylight. In front of the police station. Confident that he won’t be arrested or prosecuted, he struts back to his desk, the poor man’s blood still staining his police baton. And yet, in his own way, Jason is just as lost and rudderless. Descended from squalid poverty, the badge is his ticket to the economic security and public respect no white trash yokel like himself would ever be offered on his own. Mildred forces him to come to terms with his own inadequacies, and for a man who has built his life in deliberate ignorance of them, it is devastating.
An Experiment in Criticism: Though harrowing as an examination of grief, Three Billboards is decidedly imperfect. Many of its problems come from the fact that McDonagh, a British-Irish playwright, did more than try to tell story; he tried to tell a distinctly American one. It boldly addresses problems endemic to our country with all the subtlety and grace of a European who gets all their news about America from Twitter and Oscar bait movies. “Hey deputy. You beat any n*****s lately?” Mildred matter-of-factly asks Jason when they meet. The only people of color in Ebbing exist to be befriended by Mildred and victimized by Jason. Ebbing itself isn’t so much a small American town as a small Irish village coincidentally inhabited by Americans. When the billboards first go up, it’s a dumpy, dour Catholic priest who shows up at her doorstep to ask if she understands what she’s doing. (And why she hasn’t been to Mass in ages.) Does McDonagh even know that Missouri isn’t part of the South as the film itself claims?
Overall: Three Billboards is at its clumsiest when it tries to interrogate American society directly and at its best when it approaches its characters as flawed human beings, not probable Trump voters living in a red state in the year 2017. When it shines it does so with captivating power, unflinching honestly, and acerbic dark humor. Oh, and McDormand is a shoo-in for Best Actress.
Featured Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures