“Raped While Dying”
“And Still No Arrests”
“How Come, Chief Willoughby?”
In striking black, capital letters on three successive blood-red billboards alongside a winding country road just outside Ebbing, Missouri, the pointed message sets an emotional grenade off in an otherwise quiet town in writer-director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) new film, an outrageous and stirring dramedy that might have just become the timeliest film of 2017.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri stars the inimitable Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a mother who commissions the titular billboards to shame a police department that, seven months after her teenage daughter was kidnapped, raped, and murdered, is essentially treating the crime like a cold case.
Mildred is a spitfire in her own right, whose reputation precedes her. She lumbers around town in a blue jumpsuit, like what a car mechanic might wear. By the end of the first act of the film, she’s drilled a hole in a dentist’s thumb and cursed out a priest about the Catholic Church’s “boy fucking” hypocrisy.
When she’s asked if she’d reconsider her billboards after finding out that Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has cancer, she coolly replies, “They wouldn’t be as effective after you croak, right?”
While the community superficially seems to feel compassion for Mildred, they have a near-violent reaction to her very public exposing of their very private town, especially given how fond most everyone is of Chief Willoughby. They harass her and intimidate her to a degree that is startling to anyone who would assume a town would demand the same kind of justice as Mildred for such a violent crime.
Leading the charge against her is Sam Rockwell’s bigoted, alcoholic, hotheaded, dim-witted cop Dixon, who infamously assaulted a black suspect he had in custody the year prior, giving Mildred a killer sound bite for when the local news interviews her about the billboards and her daughter’s case: the police must be “too busy torturing black folks” to solve it.
The town’s recoiling at Mildred’s billboards, spearheaded by Dixon’s vicious attempts to silence her, are initially easy to judge, particularly as we’re witnessing this story through Mildred’s eyes. But as more people protest for their removal, some even rationally, the shades of how we react to such brutal realities, particularly in cases of sexual assault, begin to materialize as well. Even her teenage son, played by Lucas Hedges, begrudges her for the now daily and controversial reminder of the details of his sister’s gruesome death.
Provocative questions are raised: How do we react when forced to confront an uncomfortable truth? How much empathy are we truly capable of? How do our feelings about one person excuse our actions against another? How much do we really care about justice, when it might just be easier to turn a blind eye? Just how blissful is ignorance, to the degree that we’d vilify anyone who actively prevents it?
It goes without saying that we tend to dissect pop culture in a news-driven laboratory. What’s going on in the world obviously determines how an audience views, receives, and responds to a movie’s characters and message. And if that’s perennially true, it’s a more acute and heightened practice now more than ever, when we watch films and ask: How does this film play against the Black Lives Matter movement, or resonate in the Trump era, or clarify itself in the midst of the Harvey Weinstein fallout?
It’s that latter news event that might elicit the most soul searching from a Three Billboards viewing.
There’s this woman’s frustration over the fact that, in her mind, a violent rape and murder was not properly or thoroughly investigated. There’s the affronted pearl clutching of a town that would rather not have to engage in conversations about such unpleasant things. And there’s the loneliness and the vulnerability of being the woman who draws attention to herself with the initial war cry and charges into an uphill battle, fending off all the attacks against her on the way.
Through Mildred, we see the moral compromises a person must make on such a crusade, the tunnel vision they must maintain, the courage of their convictions no matter the societal lashings, the ostracizing, the collateral damage, or the fairly rational pleas to stop it all they face.
The beauty in McDormand’s performance isn’t just the reckless abandon she imbues in Mildred’s offensive, but the fleeting cracks she allows in Mildred’s resolve, revealing the toll a campaign like this must take on even the strongest of persons.
To that regard, and for all of Mildred’s brash bluntness, it’s the restraint in McDormand’s performance that has skyrocketed her to frontrunner Best Actress status this awards season. Mildred has a lot of personality, but McDormand resists the temptation for histrionics typical in the arc of a grieving mother, which in turn further illustrates the character’s admirable strength.
The film gets broad, with big swings for humor that veer on utter silliness, and that’s truthfully where Three Billboards becomes accessible. It’s the Martin McDonagh touch that blankets the film in a little bit of latent lunacy and screwball comedy, preventing it from becoming an oppressive dirge, given the subject matter.
The film also forces the audience to grapple with their own feelings about Mildred.
She’s the protagonist, of course. But there are times when you can’t help but wonder if she’s being petulant, particularly given the way in which Harrelson’s Willoughby is lionized. Is she being noble? Or is she simply unable to let things go? Are Mildred’s stunts (and they escalate to acts far more dramatic and damaging than confrontational billboards) justified by her grief and her search for answers? Or are her attempts to rouse her community misguided and merely alienating?
It’s a quandary that is unfortunately timely. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, especially with that title, might seem to present itself as an idiosyncratic character study of a woman as she launches a David vs. Goliath face-off against her town, but it’s an equally fascinating mirror to the unsavory ways society instinctively behaves when a woman dares to disturb the status quo. That when a woman speaks up, no matter how justified she might be, the reflex is to silence her again.