'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri': Nothing But Tremendously Acted Pain and Suffering

CW: Mentions of sexual assault and harassment, police brutality

One of the most talked-about films this season, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” opens in a fictional town seven months after 17-year-old Angela Hayes is murdered near her rural home by an unknown assailant. Confusion ensued as I tried to figure out whether I loved or hated each character, plot twist, and production decision.  

Still grieving and without any answers, the late teenager’s mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) decides to make use of three abandoned billboards along the old, unused highway leading up to her house.

After an abrupt, unrelenting meeting with the town’s billboard salesman, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), she confirms: “What’s the law on what ya can and can’t say on a billboard.”

Mildred requests the following three messages, printed in large black ink on a red background:  “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests?,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” All of the messages were with the intention of solving her daughter’s murder.

“What a great woman taking matters into her own hands (as so many have to do with police investigations),” I thought.

The resulting two hours depict a small town’s reaction to the continuing criminal investigation, centered on Mildred and the ripple effect of her words. McDormand shows honesty and truth in her face in an unsettling yet terrifyingly consistent performance.

The town is further plagued by a systematically racist police force led by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is widely admired and defended by the town when Mildred calls him out on her billboards. A continuously disappointed Mildred apathetically fire bombs the police department and almost humorously gets away with it.

The film has received criticism in recent days for the amount of sympathy given to Sam Rockwell’s racist, malevolent Police Sergeant Dixon by nearly every character, including Mildred herself. He’s effectively characterized as a poor, alcoholic man with lack of self-esteem and general intellect — not as a racist cop willing and able to abuse his power every single day on and off the job.

The film somewhat comes to a climax when Dixon wrongfully throws Welby through a second-story window in a fit of rage. Director Martin McDonagh responded to the backlash, saying that while Dixon is consistently a “racist jerk” throughout the film, by the end “he’s seen that he has to change.”

Ah, how refreshing — a racist realizing what they believe is wrong, but not doing anything to change it.

The film also employs the regional stereotypes ripe in many Hollywood films, especially in  depicting the present American midwest. Like most other film-related conversations recently, it brings to mind the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s rampant sexual assault, harassment, and manipulation of women throughout the film industry, along with the ensuing #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

The timing of the film’s release could appear as a statement that middle America is sadistic and full of racists and rapists, while in reality, consistent acts of racism, sexism, and sexual assault are occuring within and throughout Hollywood itself.

As I see it, McDonagh, a Brit brought up by Irish parents, probably just picked the state of Missouri as an accurate representation of the American Midwest/South and went with it.

While bringing up a necessary discussion of police brutality and intentionality, grief and family discord after loss, and a mother’s efforts to bypass the forces of power to receive justice, the film misses the mark on being a cultural critique or even an accurate representation of the many daily strifes and discords of small, lower-income, and majority-white communities.

We’re left with many thoughts, but no answers. People get off the hook for burning down buildings, seeing vigilante justice taking hold, and having no closure. “Three Billboards” constantly brings about moral outrage in any viewer, barely letting you breathe calmly from start to finish. Watch for the acting (again, Frances McDormand!) — not for any big revelations about the world today.

For a stronger depiction of the immorality and perversion of Hollywood, I’d recommend turning to Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.”