Due to its wacky title, this movie may have slipped under your radar. However, this film critic believes it may prove to be one of Hollywood’s most celebrated projects of the year, and she’s here to tell you why.
Mildred Hayes (portrayed beautifully by Francis McDormand) is a dour, no-nonsense woman living in the rural town of Ebbing, Missouri. From the outset, the audience learns that Mildred’s daughter has recently died from being savagely raped and burned to death. Furious about her loss and the inability of the Ebbing police to reprimand a culprit for it, Mildred pays the local advertising company for the space on three abandoned billboards outside of her property. The billboards’ message: a direct affront against another fascinating character, police Chief Will Willoughby (the venerable Woody Harrelson) for his failure to solve the crime. As we come to find out, however, Willoughby is suffering his own existential woes in the form of terminal cancer. While battling this disease and attempting to maximize the time he has left with his family, he is forced to combat Mildred and her inflexible demands for her daughter’s justice. Intermixed between these two conflicting forces is a third character, possibly the most brilliant of the story, officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Ignorant, violent, and still living with his mother, Dixon supplies dark comic relief to the storyline and ultimately undergoes a metamorphosis of his own. While sometimes clashing with one another in attempting to navigate their individual struggles, these three central figures each experience a rebirth of sorts, influencing each other’s paths along the way.
In addition to the colorful characters populating Three Billboards, a main focus in this film is the sharp contrast between its quiet, rural setting and its brutal, angry content. While Ebbing, Missouri is at first glance every bit the prosaic American small town, it actually functions as a backdrop for a slough of violent, retributive crimes pitting character against character. Images such as a dental drill penetrating a finger nail and a man being thrown from a second-story window litter the cinematography of the film, adding a little shock value and suspense for the audience. So what is the significance of this? In addition to heightening the entertainment value, I believe this tactic works to provide a paradoxical visual representation of the story; while the town and the characters seem quite ordinary on the surface, they are burdened by deep, devastating wounds that must be treated before they are able to find solace. Fire is an especially symbolic graphic element in the film, acting as a figurative purifying agent in several scenes. While the fire destroys edifices and mars people on a surface level, it metaphorically burns away the hard edges of the characters and helps them to heal their broken souls.
From my perspective, this film carries heavy themes and its material can be construed in a number of ways. I admit this may be overreaching, but I personally found ways of interpreting the story both politically and religiously. Allow me to back this up. From a political standpoint, the film seems to highlight (in quite a sharp and graphic manner) the ignorance and depravity that many Americans believe prevail in the states in the middle of the country. Due to recently deepening ideological divides between the liberal left and old-fashioned conservatism in the US, this could be a Hollywood outcry against (as Hollywood perceives them) the backward moral values of rural America. The biggest evidence of this is Rockwell’s character, Jason Dixon. Anyone familiar with American history should recognize the reference in his name to the Mason Dixon line (which officially designated latitudinal division between slave-holding states in the south from non-slave-holding states in the north as part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820). Given the similarity of this historical emblem to the character’s name and the film’s setting in Missouri, I find it hard to believe this is purely coincidental. Dixon’s character further exemplifies the stereotypical qualities of a rural American through his immense ignorance, his tendency towards violence, and his constant belittlement of minorities. Other elements contributing to the liberal undertones of the film include a negative depiction of the police, a focus on violent acts against women, and moments of racial tension. The reasoning behind these tactics is not difficult to determine, as Hollywood always loves a story that brings social justice inadequacies to the audience’s attention. However, I like to believe that their purpose is to further shatter the audience’s expectations, just as the paradoxical imagery does; despite the town and the characters' obvious deviations from modern society, the film’s progression demonstrates each person’s humanity and resilience in the face of loss.
In addition to the evidence of a political slant to the film, I’m also convinced of an underlying biblical theme present in the story. My greatest evidence for this revolves around the character of Chief Willoughby. To me, Chief Willoughby comprises a Christlike character that, through his own self-sacrifice, is able to help the other characters metamorphose into better, less self-centered versions of themselves. From early on, Mildred’s billboards paint Willoughby as a powerful but negligent authority figure whom she blames for the lack of closure and justice in her daughter’s death (as one might blame God for such a tragedy). While he is never able to satisfy Mildred in this way during his life, Willoughby's suicide and the letters he leaves behind allow the other characters to undergo their own individual growth. Mildred and Dixon’s character transitions seem to even begin in the same climactic scene following Willoughby’s death—while Dixon reads the posthumous letter Willoughby left for him, explaining that he will never amount to the detective he dreams of being without learning the concept of love, Mildred angrily sets the police precinct on fire (not realizing that Dixon is inside). As Dixon runs out of the building to escape, consequently catching fire himself, the audience sees his metaphorical rebirth, consumed in flames, following his reading of Willoughby’s words. This incident also acts as a beginning to Mildred’s personal growth as a character, as she visualizes her handmade destruction and its effect on another innocent life.
Disregarding deep metaphysical analysis, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri still satisfies as a raw, beautiful tale of human heartbreak, loss, and redemption. The performances leave a lasting impression on the audience, while the poetic elements of the script carry the story through to its unresolved, but apt conclusion. I see this film gaining hefty recognition this awards season, and my nomination predictions are as follows:
Best Actress, France McDormand
Best Supporting Actor, Sam Rockwell
Best Original Screenplay, Martin McDonagh
Best Director, Martin McDonagh