In the first act of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a woman marches into the local advertising office and pays five thousand dollars to rent three derelict billboards located on a seldom-traveled rural road. That woman is Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), and from the first words she speaks, from her hard facial expression, from her indomitable body language, the viewer—and the poor ad agent—understand that you mess with Mildred at your peril.
These billboards, set at perhaps fifty-yard intervals, catalyze a communal crisis that involves Mildred, her son, her friends, the local police, the advertisers, and one dentist who picks exactly the wrong time to take a political side. Mildred has the billboards painted red and sequentially messaged:
Raped While Dying
And Still No Arrests
How Come, Chief Willoughby?
These messages represent Mildred’s shot across the bow of the local constabulary, led by William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). We soon learn that Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered, her body set afire, months before. The police have no leads. And Mildred has waited long enough.
Though you might think a small conservative town would rally behind the victim’s family, much of their loyalty to their fellow citizen ends where their adoration for Chief Willoughby begins. Mildred learns this almost immediately when Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, who, like most actors in this film, disappears into his role so well you forget whom you’re watching) spots the billboards and reports them to Willoughby (yet another excellent Harrelson character). This leads to a talk between Willoughby and Mildred, in which the complicated nature of the film is epitomized:
Willoughby: I’d do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don’t match no one who’s ever been arrested, and when the DNA don’t match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn’t a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well… right now there ain’t too much more we could do.
Mildred: You could pull blood from every man and boy in this town over the age of 8.
Willoughby: There’s civil rights laws prevents that, Mrs. Hayes, and what if he was just passing through town?
Mildred: Pull blood from every man in the country.
Willoughby: And what if he was just passing through the country?
Mildred: If it was me, I’d start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.
Willoughby: Yeah well, there’s definitely civil rights laws that prevents that. (This quote courtesy of IMDB.com)
From this exchange, we can see that Willoughby is less a bad man than a flawed human being. We can never forget those flaws, but we can acknowledge his empathy and the real problems law enforcement faces in cases without leads. From the same scene:
Willoughby: I don’t think them billboards is very fair.
Mildred: The time it took you to get out here whining like a bitch, Willoughby, some other poor girl’s probably out there being butchered.
The brutal rape, murder, and desecration of Mildred’s daughter has hardened her past the point of empathy with Willoughby’s problems, including his slow and agonizing death from pancreatic cancer—though there is a later scene in the police station that suggests that isn’t quite true, either. In short, from the opening moments of the film, we realize that we have entered a complicated world, where those who deserve our sympathy don’t always get it and no one is clearly and purely good or bad.
Chief Willoughby, whom, we might assume, is the antagonist—and who is capable of saying things like, “If you fired every cop who was just a little bit racist, you’d have, like, three cops. And they’d hate the fags”; who is capable of strong-arming the mother of a rape/murder victim; who continues to employ Dixon in spite of rumors about his torturing black suspects—is also a self-sacrificing man who can see the smallest, dimmest spark of humanity in a goon like Dixon and the likely outcomes of his disease for his loved ones. A series of letters he writes to the other characters reveals further depths in this man, who, against your better judgment, you may come to love a little.
Mildred, so strong and so broken, backtracks and shows honest concern over Willoughby’s health just before she commits an act of protest that may well shock you. In many ways—hence this review’s title—she is like her own character from Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film, Blood Simple, moved to a new town and sick of men’s bullshit. If McDormand is not nominated for Best Actress, I shall cry foul.
Dixon, at first a cartoonish buffoon who embodies the worst characteristics of southern white men and police officers, reveals layers of compassion and dedication underneath those borderline-inhuman traits.
In short, the film never lets us settle comfortably into rooting for any one character, and it forces us to see all sides of a complex, maddening, tragic situation. There is nothing wrong with a good guys vs. bad guys tale, but Three Billboards’ story is one we could imagine occurring in a thousand small towns anywhere in America. That universality and the depth of the movie’s character development make this story impossible to forget.
Plus, for a narrative that hinges on racism, sexism, rape, murder, Missouri citizens versus the police, terminal illness, suicides, severe injuries, and familial strife, Three Billboards is often surprisingly and refreshingly funny. At times, you may laugh and cry after one scene.
Supporting characters, played by always-welcome film and television veterans like Zeljko Ivanek and Clarke Peters, play key roles. Caleb Landry Jones’s advertising man is the hinge on which key plot points turn. Peters, playing a black officer who sweeps in and takes over a station with a history of racial problems, brings his typical no-nonsense gravitas to a minor character, as well as a few key lines that remind us of the stakes: looking about at the all-white force in the station, he says, “Ain’t y’all cracker motherfuckers got work to do?”
Some viewers might not appreciate the film’s non-resolution resolution, but for this writer, it perfectly encapsulates the world of Ebbing, Missouri, which, in its turn, perfectly encapsulates so much of American life in the 21st Century—questions without clear answers, strife on intersectional levels without clear solutions, individual pain rippling through a community and vice versa.
Underrated director Martin McDonagh and his stellar cast and crew have crafted one of 2017’s best films. If you missed it in theaters, rent it as soon as you can.