The film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, which was released on Nov. 10, 2017, has grossed $121 million worldwide since opening night. It captured the attention of critics and viewers alike, with nominations for countless awards, including seven Oscars and six Golden Globes. So, as I prepared myself to watch it for the first time a few nights ago, I was both excited and apprehensive. After all, I hadn’t heard much about the film, despite its popularity, until about a week ago. What about this movie has gathered so much praise? Am I about to watch a Taken-esque kidnap film? Or should I expect a depressing story about a pained family desperate to move on? To my surprise, it was neither.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is less about a brutal murder and more about the dynamic of a small town amidst grief and controversy, and how each member is challenged in the face of distress. While the film has been categorized as a “darkly comical drama,” I hardly remember the funny quips and one-liners that appear sporadically throughout the movie. What stuck with me is the gut-wrenching, uncensored plot that forces the audience to ask: what wouldn’t we do for the people we love? When do we cross the line between desperate and dangerous? This film is not for the faint of heart, but after three viewings and plenty of contemplation, I believe Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri deserves every bit of success it has achieved.
The movie opens as grief-stricken Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rolls her Ford Country Squire through an empty road, examining a set of decrepit billboards that will soon display heavy controversy and quickly become the center of attention in the small town of Ebbing. Mildred’s daughter, Angela, has been dead for seven months now, but there are no suspects, let alone any arrests. While Mildred has become restless, the rest of the town, particularly the police department, has moved on.
Mildred’s controversial billboards line up along Drinkwater Road, which has been recently abandoned due to a new freeway on the other side of town. However, quickly after their release, the signs bring the old road back into the spotlight. Together, their questionable message stirs up the sleeping town practically overnight. We see how quickly a town can turn against one person when Mildred uses her signs to personally attack the Chief of Police of Ebbing. Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) appears to have given up on the Angela Hayes case quickly; however, it is soon revealed that he is a well-liked, loyal family man who only has a few months left in a battle against pancreatic cancer. Already, the audience is faced with a moral dilemma. Who’s in the right here? Is it the grieving mother who seeks justice, or the dying policeman who could’ve done more? The residents of Ebbing have no trouble deciding; Mildred finds herself the victim of vandalization and hate, including (almost) getting her tooth drilled out by a not-so-objective dentist.
While I was tempted to sympathize with Chief Willoughby, a whole new antagonist appears in the form of Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a notorious alcoholic, racist and homophobe. What a charming trio. He openly antagonizes Mildred Hayes for her vigilante billboards, even bending the law to arrest her friends and attack her character. Dixon’s character adds another element to the plot through the obvious abuse of power and carelessness that is often brought into question with the police force today. Such a man obviously shouldn’t have a badge, so why does Willoughby keep him around? I wanted to hate Officer Dixon, and at times I truly did. But when he returns home every night from work, he faces ruthless emotional abuse from his dependent mother, furthering his alcoholic dependency and lack of self-esteem. Officer Dixon’s character is incredibly complex, and Sam Rockwell does an excellent job portraying such a complicated character, as is evident by his Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor.
Unfortunately, Woody Harrelson’s character bites the bullet (quite literally) halfway through the film. He goes out on a solid note, although I was regretful that the movie lost such a strong actor so quickly. I initially questioned the decision to have him killed, but Harrelson’s character makes a huge impact long after he passes away. He leaves a letter for none other than Mildred Hayes, through which he makes peace with her. He comments that the billboards were a good move, despite the hell they brought to him. He wishes her the best, and he discloses that he has paid for the next few months of Mildred’s billboard rental. Willoughby, initially painted as a villain, has redeemed himself incredibly.
Despite the ruthless backlash Mildred Hayes receives from her former friends of Ebbing, she never breaks. She never falters in her intensity, and you never see her cry. It seems that her sympathy died with her daughter. Actress Frances McDormand commented that she made a point to make Mildred look so ruthless. It shows that Mildred is out of touch with her emotions, a natural reaction to such trauma. This is evident as she continues to display the billboards after Willoughby’s death, including the one that specifically calls him out. At this point in the film, the audience understandably starts to question Mildred’s sanity. The signs seem to have caused more damage than good, especially to her high school son, Robbie, and her ex-husband.
It is at this point in the film that the audience finally sees a flashback to the day Angela was murdered. Mildred refuses to let her borrow the car, forcing Angela to walk to her friend’s house. Angela angrily yells to her mother “I hope I get raped.” Devastatingly, Mildred’s last words to her daughter are “I hope you get raped, too.” Upon my first viewing, I had to pause the movie and think about the heavy implications this scene carries for the Hayes family. Angela and Robbie had a strained relationship with their mother. They yell profanities at each other and display what I would categorize as abusive behavior. But Mildred’s ex-husband brings the real abuse, as he chokes and hits Mildred repeatedly after leaving her for a nineteen-year-old girl. This family dynamic, also present in the Dixon family, adds another complex moral dilemma for viewers. How can a mother say this to her daughter? How can I possibly sympathize with someone who brings so much pain to the people in her life? I had to keep reminding myself that Mildred, too, is a victim.
The ending to the the film understandably brought mixed reactions to most critics, as the killer is never found and the plot remains open-ended. Dixon, my least favorite character, absolves himself by obtaining DNA from a man who brags in a bar about raping and killing a girl. At such a pivotal part of the film, Dixon’s character is ultimately called into question: will he turn in the DNA or let it be due to his obvious hatred for Mildred? Although I was sure he was going to commit suicide, he uses this information to prove himself and attempt to help Mildred despite their shortcomings. He calls her the next morning to tell her not to give up hope. My anger towards Dixon melted away, even though it is proven that the man in question is not Angela’s killer. I feel that these aspects of the film are extremely important. It highlights the love of a small community amidst hate. This sense of community, although tested, is a driving force in the film that keeps each character connected to one another.
Having said that, I was so completely frustrated that Angela’s killer is never found. My heart sank and my eyes watered. I wanted justice for Angela as much as her family did. Things take an interesting turn, however, when Dixon notes that the man he overheard in the bar “may not be our guy, but he did something shitty.” The film ends as Dixon and Mildred join each other on a road trip to Idaho, in pursuit of the man who tortured and killed someone’s little girl. What they’ll do when they find him, they’re not quite sure. This is up to the audience to decide, much to my dismay.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the few films that stuck with me for days after I watched it. It’s so unique in that it touches so close to reality. It has no true protagonist or antagonist (discounting the rapist and murderer). The people in the film are not simply “black and white,” and, in reality, no one really is. Dixon redeems himself by defying his mother’s abuse. Mildred shows sympathy when I was starting to believe she truly didn’t have any left. The plot is so complex that viewers are forced to contemplate the film long after it ends. Are Mildred and Dixon justified in their pursuit for the stranger? Was it acceptable for Mildred to lash out on her neighbors like she did? And, ultimately, did the billboards bring more good or evil to the town of Ebbing, Missouri? There are no right answers to these questions because, like in real life, there are so many elements to our lives that impact who we are and what we do. Overall, the film’s honesty and unrestricted plot make Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri not only one of the greatest films of 2017, but one of the most notable films of this decade.