Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri: When The Answer to Everything is Violence

I love spoilers. I have zero concern with knowing the ending ahead of time when I see a movie. It helps me to relax and enjoy the ride if I’m not trying to figure it out.

There are spoilers in this post so stop reading if you are not a fan.

But when Ledcat suggested we go to see Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri – I was too busy to read up very much. In this case, that worked to my advantage because the convoluted storyline is difficult to sum up in a few sentences.

If you read the actual movie critic reviews, you’ll read all of the high notes – comedy deftly balanced with darkness, complicated and nuanced characters, Frances McDormand is a god, stellar cast, etc.

And they are all right. This movie is terrific, but in a disturbingly dark way.

Here’s the set-up: Mildred Hayes is grieving the recent violent death of her teenaged daugher, who was raped and murdered. She’s also trying to parent her teenaged son. She’s furious that the police have made no progress so she purchases three billboards to light a fire under the local sheriff, Bill Willoughby. Willoughby has terminal pancreatic cancer, but defends a deputy who assaulted a black man. That’s how the complexity unfolds.

Don’t expect any tidy endings or shining moments of moral satisfaction. Instead, you’ll inhabit a complicated world where there are no heroes and no one-dimensional villains. It is small town rural Southern world filled with violence, racism, and sexism which flow together in a seamless fuel supply for misery, regret, and pain.  The characters are so hard that they can barely acknowledge the simplest gestures of mercy or kindness.

It wasn’t a satisfying movie. The lack of conclusions might leave you raging against the filmmaker. A dark comedy is a stretch. A dramedy might be a better fit, but the humor is absolutely uncomfortable and sometimes terrible to behold.

As you would expect, Frances McDormand is brilliant. I did not like Mildred, but I felt for her. Woody Harrelson as the Sheriff is also good and brings his typical swagger and confidence in his own innate decision making.

But it was Sam Rockwell as Officer John Dixon whose character development was a horror show of awkward attempts to do the right thing, guided by people whose moral compasses are askew in the worst ways possible. Watching Dixon was physically painful; his pitiful wrestling with racism, violence, and his own ignorance made me repeatedly cringe in my seat. I was determined to resist his redemptive arc and the abrupt ending of the movie took care of that problem.

Everyone is angry in this movie and it isn’t difficult to understand why. I’m glad I saw the film, but I worry that Dixon will be bluewashed as a redeemed man by award talk. Or that we won’t talk about the seething violence that is both a literal reality for many of us and a powerful metaphor.

It was also disturbing that most of the characters who were people of color (mostly Black and Latino) were either victims of abusive behavior or plot devices to help the white folks at critical junctures. Mildred’s boss, a black woman named Denise, went to jail on her behalf, but her loyalty to Mildred was unflagging. A man named Jerome saves her plan in a twist that felt a bit too ‘Norma Rae’ for my tastes. Mildred wasn’t leading anyone, not rescuing anyone, and barely able to stay afloat in her grief.

This was our first time to the renovated movie theater at the Waterworks complex. If you want to see a movie, see it in a recliner with enough room between seats that sharing popcorn is an issue. Very nice digs.