Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not a kind film, and it is not an easy one. It is thoroughly dark and more than a little sad, but has some comedic moments. Perhaps the best way to think of it is as some kind of demented moral play – a grim farce meant to explore the depths of human depravity and whether there is any potential for absolution. As such, the film sets up a horrible situation, doubles down a few times, and then challenges the spectator. Along the way, the performances are outstanding, and though some of the characters feel stereotypical or one-dimensional, that’s the point. Three Billboards is a poignant look at despair and hope, hatred and forgiveness, and prejudice and love.
Three Billboards opens by pulling exactly zero punches. After Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) purchases advertising space on three billboards on a seldom-traveled road, we know there is some tragedy in her past, as the advertiser immediately identifies her as “Angel Hayes’s mother”. We then see the billboards: “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests”, and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”. Mildred means to draw attention to the poor investigative work that has gone into the murder of her daughter, and the billboards definitely catch the attention of the locals.
The story unfolds in a linear fashion except for one flashback to when Angela was alive. This “help the audience” sequence feels a little on-the-nose and unnecessary, but it is only a small detraction from the overall thrust of the story. Essentially, with these billboards, Mildred has created a rift in the community. Some believe that her anger is justified and that the billboards are an effective solution; others believe she is criticizing the police unjustly. There really aren’t any fence-sitters.
In the police station, the two major players are Chief Willoughby himself (Woody Harrelson) and one of his deputies named Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon is quite the bigot, and he is well-known throughout the community as such. It is even intimated that he tortured a black man in the interrogation room. But, he is fiercely loyal to Willoughby. The chief is more nuanced and balanced. He understands what Mildred is trying to do, and wants nothing more than to catch Angela’s murder – but it’s a cold case. There isn’t much more that he can do.
The tension between these two camps grows more acute as the billboards stay up. Mildred’s abusive ex-husband injects himself into the proceedings, random townsfolk harass Mildred and her son, and there are even multiple threats, assaults, and crimes perpetrated by players on both sides of the issue. Nothing is particularly black and white, and the film encourages the audience to consider all of the various grays.
Three Billboards may go down as one of the most superbly-acted films of the early 21st century. McDormand and Rockwell both won Oscars for their performances, and Harrelson was also nominated. These performances all shine, with multiple scenes worth the price of admission. But, there are also a host of fantastic character actors in smaller roles. Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird, Manchester By The Sea) plays Mildred’s son, Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out, X-Men: First Class) plays the ad manager, and Peter Dinklage even has a crucial part to play in this story. Even lesser-known actors steal a few scenes. It’s a fantastic ensemble, and a perfect example of top tier acting talent raising the quality of a film to something special
Now, it should be obvious that the subject matter of Three Billboards lends itself to a dark tone, but there’s a bit of humor and tenderness undercutting a few key moments. True, the film leans towards the sarcastic and the grim, but there are certainly funny moments. Those familair with writer-director Martin McDonagh, best known for Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges, will likely notice a similar tone with Three Billboards. But, this film is much sadder, much more morose and dark.
This is partly due to the fact that there is a continuous tension in Three Billboards, no real “heroes”, and no easy answers. Sad things keep happening, people resort to violence and/or vigilantism to solve their problems, and there’s even a fair bit of martyrdom underlying everything. It’s a tough watch, a challenging film to take in and evaluate.
But, the true brilliance of Three Billboards lay in its ending – specifically how it is comfortable with ambiguity. There are many important details, but suffice to say that the police do not find Angela’s killer – but they may have found someone guilty of a similar crime. Two characters are encouraged to decide whether killing this rapist is still serving justice – or maybe its just serving their sense of revenge. The final arc of the film is meant to encourage the audience to participate by considering what they believe these two characters will do and, ultimately, whether they believe in true moral redemption. I think the film suggests that one particular answer is correct, though I completely understand those who feel like the ending is simplistic, white-washed, and unrealistic. But that’s not how I see it.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri posits a dark world where people hurt each other, almost indiscriminately. There is great cruelty in this world, and it can come from characters on either side of the internal “issue” of the movie – the eponymous billboards. This cruelty takes many forms, but even at its most brutal it is not enough to completely extinguish the human capacity for kindness and love. That’s a profound sentiment, even when cloaked in ambiguity.