‘Three Billboards...’: At the Crossroads of Justice and Revenge

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri doesn’t walk the easy road.

Updated
Movie Reviews
5 min read
A poster of <i>Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri</i>.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri begins as a rampage of rage. The anger in the small American township is so palpable that it virtually doffs its hat to our daily consumption of rage that keeps kissing the sky.

Almost everyone in town is angry. But not more than Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand). The titular billboards are a vessel for Mildred’s anger that she rents to post three messages with bloodshot backgrounds. The messages read: “raped while dying”; “and still no arrests”; “how come, chief willoughby?”

A still from <i>Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.</i>
A still from Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Mildred lost her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) to a dreadful crime, and she decisively believes that nothing has been done to catch the culprit. Her rage is focused against a dying light. The light here is justice that is conspicuous in its absence. Instead of waiting to see the light grow fainter, she discharges her wrath in such furious frenzy that the suburban ennui is shaken for good.

It’s simpler to imagine Mildred as the avenging angel fighting the system. But anyone familiar with the works of Martin McDonagh would know his fondness for human follies and the absurdity of fate.

Here, he denies the audience the easy lane of morality, and takes a queasy street instead.

Mildred’s chief opponent, Willoughby, the local sheriff played by Woody Harrelson, is not what we expect out of the billboards. He is neither violent, nor despicable. He is not even an idler. Harrelson, who has delighted us with his youthful charm for ages, is at his mousiest here, playing a decent hardworking cop in a small town who is adored by his family and the town folks. When he meets Mildred, he explains how all murder cases don’t reach their conclusion, and how death is just round the corner for him, for cancer is eating him up quite rapidly.

All our sympathy for Mildred suddenly sees a shift since Willoughby is not what our easy rationalities demanded. But Mildred goes a step further, and says, “They wouldn’t be so effective after you croak, right?” Now even Mildred is not what we have come to assume. Has she come too far in her quest for justice?

In this little exchange between Willoughby and Mildred, McDonagh shifts character expectations, telling us no virtuous drums will be beaten here. Much like the folks in town, the audience is presented with the arduous reality of a mother’s response to her daughter’s rape and consequent murder.

In contrast to the adolescent hitman fantasies of his earlier films, McDonagh has put a mother at the center of gravity for once.

Frances McDormand, a unique presence in all of cinema, knows the unpredictable length Mildred has to travel. Her character might dress like a peripheral hitman – a combatant suit with a bandana, but her fight is that of a mother. Her fury makes her a pugilist of words, her inconsolable grief makes her an outsider in her own habitation.
Frances McDormand in <i>Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri</i>.
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Mildred is Brecht’s Mother Courage, Vyasa’s Kunti, Euripides’ Medea all rolled into one, and McDormand finding a range that befits her talent wrings it with all her might – strident jabs of words to muffled implosions that show up in tears. It’s her finest turn after Fargo, making it an impossible task to imagine another actress in the shoes of Mildred.

But Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not all about a mother.

McDonagh is letting a mother’s flawed fury address the American ills, and in doing so, he populates her universe with off-track characters.

There is her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) who doesn’t know how to deal with his mother’s ire; there is her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes) living with his own Lolita; there is James (Peter Dinklage) who harbours feelings towards Mildred despite her unyielding side-glance. But above all, there is Dixon (Sam Rockwell, never better) who is Ebbing’s racist cop who turns out to be Mildred’s adversary and more, as the plot progresses with nitroglycerine on its back.

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in a still from <i>Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri</i>.
Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in a still from Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

This character of Dixon is what makes the film brave for its willingness to trek devious terrains, but it also stops the film from achieving the heights it set out for. And it all can be traced to Flannery O'Connor. The star of the literature of the American south is directly referenced as we see Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) in charge of the billboards reading O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find. This could have been the alternative title of the film, or the film could have easily been sprung out of O’Connor’s head.

O’Connor used humour – a mixture of sarcasm and verbal slapstick – in tune with her fatalistic view of the world, where characters suffer physical humiliations. Like O’Connor, McDonagh’s characters too learn the hard way, and take actual tumbles to the ground. But where McDonagh fails is his dealing with Dixon, offering him an easy pass to redemption (writerly love not backed by clear reasoning) whereas O’Connor never presented easy salvation to her foul characters.

McDonagh also fails to evoke the microcosm of a town, despite putting it in the title. We know a few characters, and the billboards, but Ebbing, its folks, sights, and sounds remain elusive to us.

A playwright turned filmmaker, McDonagh’s scenes tend to be stagey pitching characters against the other, quite like his first love. The film sails on because his use of humour – sharp arrows to offend and delight in equal measure are a rarity in today’s cinema. The ideas and pleasures are in words, never in visual incarnations. Perhaps he should have studied O’Connor better.

In the age of Nirbhaya, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Time’s Up, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seethes with an honorable anger that makes you hoot for it. But instead of an easy friction between two opponents, the film makes one cough blood onto another’s face, stunning the other into silence. And just like that, we are at the crossroads of justice and revenge.

(The writer is a journalist, a screenwriter, and a content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. He tweets @RanjibMazumder)

(The Quint, in association with BitGiving, has launched a crowdfunding campaign for an 8-month-old who was raped in Delhi on 28 January 2018. The baby girl, who we will refer to as 'Chhutki', was allegedly raped by her 28-year-old cousin when her parents were away. She has been discharged from AIIMS hospital after undergoing three surgeries, but needs more medical treatment in order to heal completely. Her parents hail from a low-income group and have stopped going to work so that they can take care of the baby. You can help cover Chhutki's medical expenses and secure her future. Every little bit counts. Click here to donate.)

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