Grief manifests itself in any number of ways — anger, denial, sadness, even apathy. In the case of Mildred Hayes in writer/director Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” her grief takes the form of an advertisement on three billboards situated outside — you guessed it — Ebbing, Missouri.
Following the brutal death of her teenage daughter, a crime that was never solved by the local police, Mildred rents out the billboards to send a message to her town. On a simple red background with bold, black letters, Mildred displays three phrases, one on each billboard: “RAPED WHILE DYING,” “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” These 11 words send a staggering shockwave through the community, and what follows is an emotional, often unsettling story about how each character’s struggle has consequences — both intended and not — on the people around them.
There’s a lot to unpack with this film, so before I dive into it, let’s get a few big things out of the way first. To start, Frances McDormand is a titan in the entertainment industry, and she pulls out all stops with a raw, unapologetic performance as Mildred. She’s the frontrunner in the Best Actress Oscar race, and honestly, it’s hard to argue against that. Sam Rockwell is similarly the frontrunner in the Best Supporting Actor category for his portrayal of police officer Jason Dixon. In terms of the performance itself, Rockwell delivers a wide range of emotions that build up his character’s arc. Rockwell has gotten more praise, but I think Woody Harrelson, who is also nominated, does some great work in his limited role as Chief Bill Willoughby, which raises the story’s stakes.
On a structural level, there are few negative things I can say about this film. The story is gripping, and apart from a somewhat loose end involving a character who visits Mildred at work, the character motivations are very well defined. What feels problematic about “Three Billboards,” and what I’ve seen a lot of people criticizing it for, is how Rockwell’s character Jason Dixon comes across. Dixon is a racist, abusive police officer accused of torturing black people who were in custody. When an event occurs which rattles the entire police station, Dixon responds by lashing out at a local. These moments and revelations are often played for comedy.
It should be easy to dismiss Dixon as a despicable character — which he is — but the way the story unfolds seems to set Dixon up for a redemption arc, one that he doesn’t deserve. Even Chief Willoughby tells him that he’s a good man at heart. Maybe part of the problem is that Rockwell commits to his performance and pulls out Dixon’s human side. Is McDonagh’s decision to include this arc disconcerting, even thought-provoking? Of course. Is it justifiable? I don’t know.
Here’s what I realized about halfway through the film, though: the “heroes,” the main characters, are not really the heroes at all; they are, for all intents and purposes, the villains of this story, and unlikeable for the most part. Even Mildred, our protagonist, the person we should theoretically root for, does some horrible things in the name of her cause. She acts with disregard to how her other child Robbie (Lucas Hedges) feels about the situation and the loss of his sister. In an admittedly impactful scene, we receive a flashback were Mildred and her daughter get into a heated argument that puts this death into perspective, but also depicts Mildred as an insensitive parent. It’s clear that she loves her daughter, but this is a film about the manifestation of grief, and in this case, that grief is incredibly volatile. I think this concept extends to Dixon, too. Despite his “redemption arc,” he is still an antagonistic, horrible person who should not be forgiven for his actions.
What makes all of this so disconcerting is that I understand why the characters are doing what they’re doing, and that pushes me in the direction of wanting to sympathize with them when I know I shouldn’t. Normally, that’s good from a writing standpoint because it means the characters have depth, but McDonagh’s film raises questions as to how we’re supposed to respond to the film’s events.
I’ve also seen reviews criticizing the film’s ending, but through this lens, I think it makes perfect sense. There were at least two or three other spots where “Three Billboards” could have cut to black, but by ending the story where it did, it cements the idea that we are dealing with characters who are anti-heroes at best, and villains at worst. It’s a tricky line to walk, and I think it’s for the individual viewer to decide whether it goes too far one way or the other.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is an affecting character drama that goes all in with its characters, anchored by gritty performances. Both it’s most thought-provoking and most controversial element is its exploration of moral ambiguity, questioning what is and isn’t justifiable in pursuit of each character’s goals, and what is and isn’t admissible in times of grief and uncertainty.