Cinema: The Poignant Humanity of 'Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri'

I can scarcely recall a film that challenged my perception of “good” and “bad” as consistently as the ambitiously-titled Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. An examination of grief and what grief can become when its left untreated, Martin McDonagh’s superb drama is also a study in how human decency can erode in a corrupted environment. In Three Billboards, there are no heroes, there are only flawed people capable of heroic flashes. And McDonagh captures these flashes as though they were fireflies in a small glass cup; fleeting, futile, and oddly more beautiful as a result.

The film opens with Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a single mom whose daughter Angela was raped and murdered only seven months earlier. The police haven’t given her so much as a phone call regarding the case, and she’s grown tired of waiting around. Seeking an alternative, Mildred rents three out three nearby billboards (you guessed it: outside Ebbing, Missouri) and posts three venomous messages for the police that read: Still No Arrests?” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” And finally, “Raped While Dying.”

In most instances, the mystery of who murdered Angela would drive the narrative. Not here. McDonagh, who both writes and directs the film, is clearly more interested in the cause and effect of the crime than the resolution itself. This leads to characters that regularly make decisions with their hearts, rather than their heads. Its implied that what Mildred really wants, beyond the identity of her daughter’s killer, is someone (anyone) to assume the blame, so that she may rid herself of some of the emotional anguish. Nowhere is this more evident than on Mildred’s billboards, where she calls out the town’s police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), despite knowing him to be a fair and decent man. It’s not personal, as she later admits, it's simply all she could think to do.

As Mildred, McDormand is magnificent. She leans into the character’s alternating mix of bravery and selfishness, avenging her daughter while blind to the ways in which her crusade affects Willoughby’s family as well as her own son (Lucas Hedges), who becomes the subject of mockery at school. Whether or not she realizes this is tough to gauge beneath McDormand’s resigned, tightly-coiled body language. She’s able to do more with a hollow stare than most actresses could do with entire monologues. Though to be clear, in the rare instance that she is given pages to recite, she rattles them off with ironclad conviction. Those familiar with McDonagh’s brand of crass humor will be especially tickled when Mildred ridicules a local reporter or takes a priest to task for giving her advice (some audiences even members clapped during the latter).

This blending of reprehensible action and biting comedy surfaces elsewhere with deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). A bumbling racist who lives with his mom and wields his authority the way children wield expensive toys, Dixon is also a source of pitiable laughter. His incompetence is staggering: after violently beating the man who made Mildred’s billboards, Dixon is asked to relinquish his badge and gun, only to realize he’s lost his badge. Rockwell tosses vanity to the wind in every scene here, wielding his indescribable knack for finding charm in the most despicable characters, while teasing out the decent man lurking beneath the ignorance. His arc plays as an unexpected counterpart to Mildred's, in that a violent attack on the police station brings out the best in him and the worst in her.

Perhaps even more impressive than the cast, however, are the ways in which McDonagh is constantly able to subvert our expectations of the characters. Every telegraphed moment or clichéd trope gets turned on its side. As is the case in the real world, the answer to whether someone is “good” or “bad” is deliberately messy; depending entirely on who’s asking and what they have to gain from it. You will begin to question Mildred’s actions in one scene, just as you will begin to laud Willoughby or Dixon for their actions in another. (The same goes for supporting characters played by Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, and John Hawkes). It's a structural gamble that McDonagh has flirted with in lighter fare like 2008’s In Bruges and 2012’s Seven Psychopaths, but here, with a stronger emphasis on drama than ever before, it carries remarkable emotional weight.

The opening and closing scenes of Three Billboards mirror each other, though it's unclear whether we’re being shown how much has changed or how little. Mildred drives down the road in silence, towards a destination she may never choose to arrive at. After guiding us for nearly two hours, McDonagh appears to relinquish control of the wheel, so that we may decide Mildred’s ultimate fate for ourselves. A rather humane touch for one of the year’s most poignant human dramas.