‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri’ Captures Conflicts Over Police Violence

It can’t be a coincidence Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri takes place in Missouri, the birthplace of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Martin McDonagh
Fox Searchlight
10 November 2017 (US)

Prophetically, perhaps, Marty, a writer-blocked screenwriter that serves as the protagonist in director Martin McDonagh’s last movie, 2012’s Seven Psychopaths, frustratingly tells a friend, “I don’t want to write one more film about guys with guns in their hands. I want it to be about love … and peace.”

And now, McDonagh is back with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a dramatically less silly offering that portends to do more or less just that. Don’t worry, McDonagh hasn’t gone soft. This socially conscious crime drama has men being thrown out second-floor windows, good ol’ punches to the balls, and fire (lots of fire). But whereas Seven Psychopaths was about what a man will do to save his beloved shih-tzu, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is of a little more serious flare: What will a mother do when her teenager daughter is raped and murdered, and the police seem to be doing nothing about it?

In this case, Mildred Hayes (played by a tough-as-nails Frances McDormand), has a somewhat unconventional (and ultimately controversial) plan. She rents three abandoned billboards on a country road just out of town and writes up her own indictment: 1. Raped While Dying. 2. And Still No Arrests 3. How Come, Chief Willoughby?

Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a seasoned cop juggling the management of a bottom-of-the-barrel crew of young police officers and his own terminal cancer diagnosis. The whole town is up in arms on his behalf (no one exactly says “blue lives matter” but the sentiment is certainly there). But Willoughby makes an honest effort to reach out to Mildred — he even asks if she knows he’s dying. “Well, sure.” Mildred replies. I mean, the billboards wouldn’t be too effective once he’s already keeled over, would they?

The line is the sort of humor McDonagh has become known for, but here it feels more tempered. The characters in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, aren’t parodies — they’re fully thought-out human beings. Even the “town midget”, as everyone calls him, played by an impeccable Peter Dinklage, manages to float into both comedic (read: “redneck”) waters while occasionally wading into real emotional depths (he’s not going to be the joke that Mildred’s early “I think the town midget has a crush on me” line sets him up to be).

Instead, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, seems to take an honest and multidimensional look at that little problem America has with untethered police violence. It can’t be a coincidence the film takes place in Missouri, the birthplace of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as Mildred pointedly accuses the officers of chasing around black folks for petty crimes, while her daughter’s killer remains on the loose with no leads. But the film’s real revelation isn’t in what McDonagh has to say about the police — but what he has to say about people.

The viewer’s expectations are uncovered as mere biases at every turn. When the billboards go up in flame, it’s surely the town’s angry, racist, cop right? When that same racist cop overhears a rapist discussing the heinous killing of a girl, it’s a chance for his redemption, yes? Negative… on both counts. The intriguing thing with McDonagh’s script is our expectations aren’t mere pulleys in a whodunit; we’re supposed to be discovering how wrong our assumptions are at the same time the characters do.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, ends up serving up the three voices present in the current political boxing match: We get the perspective of the “good” cops via Chief Willoughby who, like most cops, is doing what he can with very little, and takes the heat with grace and understanding. Then, we have the “bad” cops” via Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a 20-something angry white kid given too much power by way of a badge and a gun. It seems impossible we’ll ever empathize with him until McDonagh uses a device he seems to really like: letters left from those who have passed. Voiceover letters let us get real in a way that’s often too sappy to say in traditional dialogue (hell, that’s probably why McDonagh disguises his compassion for humanity in films with severed heads and burned-down police stations). Finally, we get the voice of the victims of violence, represented here by grieving mother Mildred Hayes, full of sadness and anger. And with no shits left to give.

As satisfying as the character arcs are, the script does have one or two missteps. A compelling Kathryn Newton (Big Little Lies), who is just too good at playing the angsty, future-Women’s Studies-major-type teenager, slams the door to the Hayes home exclaiming, “I hope I get raped on the way,” when her mother refuses to let her borrow the car. It’s a little too on the nose. Rape is already tragedy without the tired “and the last thing I said to her was ‘I hate her'” trope. And McDormand, as capable as an actress as she is, has a few lines that are obviously intended to crack us up with their haha-an-old-lady-said-what? irony but it feels a little played. It’s wholly satisfying, though, when Mildred, the ultimate mom you’d be embarrassed to have drop you off at school, walks up to a couple of bullies and knees both a guy and a girl in the crotch. That’s right. Equal rights, bitches.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is dark comedy on a mission. The result is a cathartic but thoroughly riveting two hours. It’s something of a feat when a crime thriller ends in not a shootout, but a simple conversation in the car. But I guess it’s because McDonagh hasn’t created a movie about murder. It’s about reclaiming a sense of justice when the world seems senseless and cold.