It’s pretty safe to say that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, unsurprisingly, doesn’t deal in absolutes. Martin McDonaugh, of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths fame, has demonstrated a mastery of contrast beyond his previous work. Like his past tragicomic tales, McDonaugh polarises his audience with the electricity and aggression of these opposites. Serenity follows devastating bursts of violence, redemption surfaces in the presence of extreme perdition and naturally, as the plot and its pivots reveal, an acceptance of death begins the restoration of a fulfilling life.
Set in the fictional Ebbing, Missouri, a name indicative of small town America’s sauntering pace, Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, a woman weathered by tragedy, assumes the role of the bristling vigilante. Clad in worn overalls and a bandana, Hayes resembles feminist icon Rosie the Riveter which is apt considering her reasoning. Hayes’ daughter was raped and murdered and the investigation into it has slowed to a near halt. In response, Hayes decides to rent three dilapidated billboards on a remote road outside of town, criticising the local police force, specifically police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for their lack of progress with her daughter’s case.
The three billboards are portraits of rage and tragedy meant to shock and infuriate – which they do. Willoughby calmly refuses to be drawn into a war with Hayes but the same cannot be said of his racially backwards and inept deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell). The angry red of these three billboards do not solve the case but they do fuel further problems within Ebbing, including the film’s most powerful visual scene. Dixon, who is accused of torturing a black person in a police cell, throws someone out of a window in a physical discharge of rage. “I got issues with white folks too,” he quips after the assault.
“Three Billboards concerns itself primarily with the lack of justice over the rape and murder of a young woman – a crime that aligns itself with the growing litany of sexual misconduct plaguing Hollywood.”
But beneath even the most seemingly evil characters, and the ones yearning for justice, there is a deeper complexity. Hayes, who, if the narrative arc continues on predictably, will become the hero of her own tragedy, renews the pain of her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), as well as creating new troubles at his school where he is bullied by students angry at the billboards. Meanwhile Willoughby, who is deemed useless by the subjectivity of Hayes, manages to see the best in everyone – even the incompetent Dixon. Some of McDonaugh’s characters may come across as cartoonish in their extremes but their individual routes to redemption show that a very real humanity thrives within.
McDonaugh’s script veers from comedy to pain throughout, gnawing iconoclastically at Ebbing’s, and America’s, societal monoliths whilst simultaneously upholding them. It’s here that the critical backlash forms. One character’s redemption makes little of the undercurrent theme of race that’s established early on but one can argue that the nature of that redemption isn’t a straightforward U-turn. And although as issues with race, especially in America, rightfully continue to be a widely-discussed subject, Three Billboards concerns itself primarily with the lack of justice over the rape and murder of a young woman – a crime that aligns itself with the growing litany of sexual misconduct plaguing Hollywood.
In a performance that rivals her Oscar-winning role in Fargo, McDormand masterfully embodies the wronged woman. She speaks loudly in revolt against an all-male police force and refuses to be silenced by the outraged citizens of Ebbing. Beyond the social importance of her role, McDormand’s Hayes is the crucial pin that holds Three Billboards together. As justice becomes seemingly more elusive and Ebbing descends into chaos (albeit some of that chaos caused by Hayes herself), her resolve remains strong. McDormand’s searing lack of sentimentality and penchant for deadpan makes Hayes a character we can both laugh and cry with. Brilliantly, this offers no reassurance in how we should perceive Three Billboards, and whether it’s morally right to laugh when we laugh. But importantly, Mildred Hayes, both a triumphant yet flawed character herself, offers a sense of order in Ebbing, Missouri, a town bereft of order itself.