Well, we’ve entered that time of year where all of the prestige pictures are going to start coming out, and we’ll be absolutely inundated with some of the best movies of 2017. The awards races are on and we get to enjoy the spoils. I really love this time of year, and this last month of 2017 seems chock full of eagerly awaited films. And, or me, today’s film was at the top of that list. The latest film from playwright, screenwriter, and director Martin McDonagh has been on my radar for quite some time, primarily because of my deep affection for his other films. Seven Psychopaths is a whole lot of fun, and In Bruges is one of my favorite films of the new millennium, so anything that McDonagh was going to craft next was probably going to intrigue me. But, to also put in the always fantastic Frances McDormand and tell a deeply heartbreaking story about a woman’s attempts to get the police of her small town to care about the murder of her daughter? Well, that’s certainly something special. Three Billboards really did seem like it was going to be another McDonagh romp, marketed with his delightful ability to mix absurd humor with the darkest of subject matters. But, much to my surprise, this film was not at all what I expected. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and it’s become one of my favorite films of the year, but it nevertheless managed to shatter almost every one of my expectations to provide a challenging and strange film that required quite a bit of introspection afterwards.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is the story of a woman named Mildred Hayes. Mildred’s daughter was brutally killed seven months before the beginning of the film, and her case seems to have slipped through the cracks with the local police running out of leads and moving onto a high-profile incident where one of their officers allegedly tortured a black man. So, to bring the case back into the spotlight, Mildred decides to do something extreme. She rents out three billboards outside of town and puts a direct but haunting message on them. They read “Raped While Dying, And Still No Arrests, How Come, Chief Willoughby?” These billboards instantly draw the attention and ire of the townsfolk, who are not pleased with Mildred giving such a blunt message and calling out the respected Chief of Police. And, to make matters worse, Willoughby is dying of cancer, and is concerned over the stress that this case will add to his final months alive. But, Mildred doesn’t care. She’s tired of being nice, and needs some semblance of justice for the murder of her daughter, and if publicly shaming the chief of police is what will get it for her, she doesn’t care. Regardless of it it upsets Willoughby, his family, the town, or even her own son.
This decision to bring her daughter’s case screaming back into the spotlight obviously has some pretty serious ramifications, and it throws the town into a bit of chaos. Willoughby spends his time trying to see if he can warm up any leads on the case while also scheming to get the billboards down, his out of control officer Jason Dixon begins threatening the man who owns the billboards, the kids of the town start making Mildred’s son Robbie’s life horrible, and everyone in town start intimidating Mildred to just drop it. But, everything gets really thrown into overdrive when something horrible happens. Because his cancer has reached a point where his life is about to become a painful mess for the last remaining weeks, Chief Willoughby decides to kill himself one night, and even though he specifically writes Mildred a letter telling her that she had nothing to do with the decision, the town doesn’t feel that way. Dixon flies into a rage and hospitalizes the man who owns the billboards and is thrown off the force while the town ostracizes Mildred even more. She then responds by trying to burn down the police station to add even more pressure. Unfortunately Dixon was inside the station at the time, and gets some severe burns. But, between recuperating and reading a letter Willoughby wrote him telling him to be a better cop, Dixon decides to try and help Mildred. He ends up encountering a guy in a bar who appears to be bragging about raping and killing a girl, and gets some DNA off him. Unfortunately, he isn’t the one who killed Mildred’s daughter. But, seeing as they’ve found someone who still did a rape, just not the one they wanted, Mildred and Dixon decide to track the man down and get some sort of vengeance.
Like I said up top, this film wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. When I saw that first trailer, which was primarily Frances McDormand running around her small town swearing at people, I figured I knew exactly what the movie was going to be. It was going to be Mildred Hayes fighting against the corrupt police officers for the whole movie, showing them to be incompetent villains. But that’s not what we got. We got a film that was much darker and with much more depth. The officers aren’t just bumbling boobs, they actually have tried to solve the murder, and they’ve just run out of leads. Woody Harrelson is outstanding as Chief Willoughby, a character with some shocking depth. Sam Rockwell is also terrific in this film, although also not at all what I was expecting. I assumed we were going to get another silly Rockwell performance, but he fully embodies the hate-filled and bigoted Dixon, a shockingly awful policeman who is little more than a bully, but who by the end of he film does seek at least a modicum of redemption. The rest of the supporting cast, such as Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, and John Hawkes were all great too, and helped to carry the film. But, the real star and driving force is Frances McDormand, who remains one of the greatest living actresses with this hilarious, heartbreaking role. Mildred Hayes is a character who can be funny at times, but who is also struggling under one of the worst things that can happen to a person, and every avenue that should have helped her has failed. It seems like the world has given up on her daughter, and her, so she begins lashing out, trying to find some way to get the one thing that she desires.
Justice. Or is it vengeance? This is what the film left me with as the credits began rolling. Mildred throws her small town into absolute chaos, drags her son through more emotional torture after the already traumatic death of his sister, adds stress to a dying man, and causes a massive amount of both psychological and physical damage to her town. And, was it because she wanted to lay to rest the spirit of her daughter, or punish those who killed her and let her down? It’s a question that the film never really answers, and in fact suggests that the difference may be so minute as to not know yourself. Mildred does seem to understand that everything Willoughby can do, he has done, so what is her ultimate endgame in this film if not to cause the police, the people who are supposed to serve and protect Ebbing, harm. And that’s not judgmental. I feel like if I was put in a similar position, where the institutions of society that are supposed to help me during the worst time in my life have failed I could really believe I would fall into a similar trap as Mildred. She’s hurting, no one seems to care, so she’s going to do what she can to hurt other people until they care about her. Mildred knows how ugly the world can be, and that it isn’t a place of redemption or justice sometimes, so she at least wants vengeance. Even when the opportunity of justice is floated in front of her near the end it’s cruelly taken away. Not through incompetence or malice, but by reality. Things don’t always end well. Justice doesn’t always deliver itself. And, when that happens the chance of vengeance can seem rather appealing. The film ends leaving us to wonder if Mildred and Dixon will get their vengeance, or if their heads will clear and they’ll realize the futility of such an action. And you really have to wonder what you would do when placed in a similar situation.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri was written and directed by Martin McDonagh and released by Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2017.
Categories: Reel Talk