Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Themes: redemption through suffering, family breakdown, domestic violence, grief and resilience. More subtly, the film critiques sexism and racism.
It may be a stretch but Three Billboards might be called a contemporary quasi western. Why? It takes the core problematic of the individual versus the law but messes with it a little. Traditionally the protagonist is male. Here we have a strong female lead taking on the forces of law and order in a rural town setting.
Directed by Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths/ In Bruges), Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, is a dark comedy centering on the struggle of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) to get some police action in the case of her raped and murdered daughter. In classic western style she goes up against the lawmen of the town, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and the ‘person of colour’ bashing sergeant Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
The establishing shot of Mildred backing her car up to survey the dilapidated billboards triggered a visual memory. Clint Eastwood astride his horse surveying the town of Lago at the start of High Plains Drifter . In that opening sequence he too wears a grim expression on his face. In both instances you just know there’s going to be trouble.
Mildred is not a likeable character, nor is she physically appealing. Yet she is hugely empathetic. Grief is a complex thing. For Mildred, it intermingles with guilt about her final encounter with her daughter and rage at her own lack of agency. McDormand’s performance is wonderfully nuanced and raw. The gift it gives the audience is an intimate portrait of what is normally a deeply private and personal emotional state.
The Sherriff comes complete with badge worn on his breast where the Silver Star would go. A decent man, trying to remain decent in the face of circumstances beyond his control. Harrelson in this role delivers a strong, multi-faceted performance. I was emotionally moved by his portrayal of personal courage and quiet dignity.
Sergeant Dixon is an utterly believable bigoted character who uses his position to terrorise the town’s coloured population. The film’s depiction of what Joe Sommerlad calls “a dysfunctional and casually prejudiced white-run law enforcement system” has particular relevance in this era of ‘black lives matter’. Instances of racially motivated police brutality are highly topical. In this, the film provides a damning commentary on an issue of global importance. The audience is asked to consider Chief Willoughby’s assertion “You got rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have three cops left and all of them would hate the fags.” Then, in acknowledging that it has some currency, the viewer must consider what needs to change.
Hysterical, heartbreaking and everything in between, Three Billboards offers the audience a vision of small town living. Though set in Missouri, there are character types that can be found everywhere. This, along with the stellar performances, is what makes the film so rich and compelling.