Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017) is a character drama focused on Mildred (Frances McDormand), the mother of a young woman who was raped, murdered, and burned seven months or so before the time of the narrative, and a short-tempered, not especially intelligent deputy sheriff, Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who has a reputation for roughing up people he’s arrested, especially black people. The mother’s impatience over the failure of the local police to arrest the murderer-rapist has driven her to the edge of reason. The deputy sheriff remains on the force only out of the tolerance, or negligence, of the sheriff, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is dying of pancreatic cancer. To prod the sheriff into action, Mildred pays for three billboards to be set up on a little-used road outside town. She pays for them with money from the sale of her ex-husband’s truck. He recently divorced her to marry a 19-year old who is about as dim a bulb as one can be. There are redemptive moments in the film, and acts of vengeance. The letters Sheriff Willoughby wrote to be delivered to certain principal characters after his suicide add to the redemptive potential. As these comments suggest, there is considerable melodrama in this film, which is among other things about the destructive effects of revenge both on the target and the person seeking vengeance. Small revelations here and there (for example, the argument Mildred had with her daughter right before she is killed) deepen the melodrama and at moments threaten to overwhelm the plot’s credibility.
One might describe this film as a dark comedy. I’d rather describe it as a dark melodrama with moments of comedy. Almost all the characters have some aspect of comedy in them—the mother’s fearlessness; the sheriff’s sense of humor; the deputy’s absolute buffoonishness. But no important moment of plot turns on comedy. Though people in the theater laughed when the mother firebombed the police station, that laughter was stifled by awareness that someone was in the station. It’s darkly funny when the severely wounded ex-deputy is placed in the same hospital room with the young owner of the billboard company whom he had previously thrown through a second-floor window. But then it’s not really funny.
The movie totters uneasily between tragedy and comedy, melodrama and farce (though it never really comes close to comedy or farce). I appreciate genre-bending, but I’m not sure that’s what we have here.
This is not a film set up for a sequel, yet indeterminate details could provide grounds for one (I don’t expect or hope for one). The film ends as Mildred and Dixon drive towards another town where they plan to kill the man they believe is responsible for killing her daughter. Both are having second thoughts about their intentions, but the film ends on that uncertain note, and we never know what they decide. After Willoughby’s death, a black man is appointed sheriff. How? Why? He’s had no role in the police force earlier. None of the officers want him giving them orders (they are all racists). What’s the consequence? What’s the purpose? When the new sheriff approaches Mildred after the firebombing of police headquarters, she is his obvious prime suspect, yet he chooses to believe the testimony of a friend that he and Mildred were out on a date when the bombing happened. How? Why? And why is this person a midget, played by Peter Dinklage? Is he there mainly to provide comic justification for a few jokes about Mildred’s date with a midget? (He corrects her use of the word midget: he is a dwarf).
When Dixon overhears a man in a bar apparently bragging about his involvement in a rape and murder whose victim could have been Mildred’s daughter, he contrives, somewhat improbably, to retrieve a bit of the man’s DNA (he does so in a fight). Yet DNA tests do not show a match with DNA on the victim’s body. Somewhat earlier in the film, Mildred is visited in the store where she works by a man who alludes to his possible involvement in her daughter’s death—this is the same man whom Dixon heard bragging in the bar. As a result, he and Mildred plan to kill him. There is no explanation for this discrepancy.
Willoughby is another loose end: he seems to be, in many ways, the most human and level-headed person in the film. He loves his family, he tries to do a good job as sheriff, he is upset by but tolerant of the billboards Mildred places outside the town. When he kills himself, he has written a number of letters to people in the town, including Mildred and Dixon, that cause them to think about the nature of their lives and directions. For Dixon, that letter (I think we are supposed to feel) prompts a change in his character. (Whether we’re supposed to find his capability for change as credible is another matter). Yet Willoughby tolerates Dixon’s presence on the police force—he did not fire him after he abused the black prisoner. How do we account for this? The film does not explain. There are enough of these weird inconsistencies that I wondered whether they resulted from a sloppy script or from a deliberate portrayal of the unresolved and incomplete details of most events. Several turns of plot are so obviously telegraphed in advance by earlier moments that I wanted to groan. Should I have? Or were these moments self-referential allusions to the film’s text, to all texts?
Characters saved the film for me: major and minor characters. Excellent performances by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson and many of the minor characters, even the dimly lit 19-year old. Mildred is full of grief and hate, and McDormand seems utterly believable as these emotions gradually distort her. Her character in particular is isolated from everyone: she likes the sheriff even though her public billboard messages blame him for the failure of the investigation into her daughter’s death. The town resents the billboards she’s put up because of their sympathies for the dying Willoughby. She’s alienated her own son, who has to go to school every day to be bullied by classmates about her latest acts. She’s briefly arrested for attacking a fat dentist (the film insists on the words “fat dentist”) who has filed a complaint about the billboards (and also who nearly drills into her teeth without anesthetizing her).
There has been a good bit of commentary about the film’s treatment of racial themes. Basically, it shows us a racist small town in Missouri, with citizens who talk like racists, with a deputy sheriff (Dixon) who had gotten into trouble for beating black people. But it doesn’t seem to do much with these details. Dixon’s abusive treatment of black prisoners is part of his much larger pattern of violence, alcoholism, short-temperedness, worthlessness. If there is anyone to dislike early in the film (other than the murderer of Mildred’s daughter, and we don’t know his identity), it is Dixon. Yet the film suggests that the receipt of Willoughby’s letter is enough to make him reconsider his ways. It is the failure of the film, in the view of those who have faulted it, for failing to somehow criticize or punish the racists. Many small rural towns (though not all) are marked by racism. In dramas set in such towns, racism is going to be an inevitable part of the scene, regardless of whether racism is the subject. Are such films obliged to make comment in such instances? In Three Billboards, it’s possible that the failure to make more of racism than it does is itself a comment (that racism is ubiquitous), but to what end I am not sure. Can such films rely on the conscience of its viewers to react against racism, even if the film doesn’t overtly do so? It’s worth noting also that the film asks us to see Mildred as the hero even when her desire for justice morphs into a desire for revenge that so totally distorts her character than she totters on the verge of sanity. If Dixon is a deranged racist, Mildred is a deranged psychopath. I respect her desire and need for justice, but not her desire for Old Testament revenge. One of the best commentaries critical of the film I’ve read is by Alissa Wilkinson in Vox.[i] She also cites a BullFeed article by Alison Wilmore which I found intelligent.[ii]
Qualms aside, this was one of the better films I’ve seen in a while. It’s messy. It’s moving, mysterious, philosophical, and human.