Ebbing, Missouri. Foggy morning. Three billboards stand abandoned by the side of a small road. Like a ghost. Martin McDonagh wastes no time setting up the scene of his third feature. After her daughter’s brutal raped and murder remains unresolved for over seven months, Mildred Hayes, a mid-western single mother rents three billboards to call the village’s police force out for their inefficiency: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, “How come Chief Willoughby?”. It is not hard to imagine that we are facing a tale of revenge, outrage and rage. But Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is far from being your typical revenge drama. This is not a story of a heroic mother courage, corrupt police officers and mean villains, you should know that ahead. This is a story that shows what we would be capable of doing in such a terrible situation. This could have been – and probably is – a real story we can all identify with.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, was inspired by McDonagh’s own experience, as he saw similar billboards somewhere around Georgia, Alabama or Florida some twenty years ago. What could have been a simple anecdote made him think, what bring someone to do such a thing? The rage behind those billboards was evident, and yet there was also some kind of unbearable pain behind them. Because that’s what Three Billboards is about: understanding that reality isn’t just black or white, reality doesn’t rely on absolute terms and stereotypes, and it is rather a mix of complex emotions and actions that may not totally be guided by rational thinking.
Mildred Hayes is a woman pushed by anger, and even though her rage seems to target the police force, the truth is, she is simply mad at the world. She is ready to do anything to solve her daughter’s case or at least make it not disappear. And for that, she will take down anyone who stays in her way, even Chief Willoughby, who is dying of cancer. Her complete lack of empathy, the shield she wears to disguise her true emotions, can make her look like the villain of the story, and yet when nobody is watching, we can see her pain, her sadness, frustration and remorse, as she feels guilty for what happened to her daughter. And after all, what would we do if we found ourselves in this situation? Frances McDormand is able to embody all these complex emotions, this anger and pain, and delivers one of the best performances of her career, which is likely to give her a second Oscar. She is both strong, in a John Wayne kind of way, but unlike the Duke, she adds a vulnerability to her character that makes her real. As she says in the movie, she is not that terrible of a person. She is just a mother who will take justice into her own hands if those who are supposed to protect us lay around the police station reading comic books and torturing people of color.
In a similar way, the police officers of Ebbing are not the stereotypical bad, corrupt cops you would picture in any other movie, which puts the audience in some sort of moral dilemma. Yes, they are corrupt and their actions cannot be justified, but there is more to them. On the one hand, Chief Willoughby who, by the signs, could appear to be the typical useless policeman, appears to be a good father, husband and a respected member of society, especially since he was diagnosed with cancer. His inability to solve the case comes not from poor work ethic (although to be fair, his staff may have something to do with him), but rather because of the fact the DNA on the victim didn’t match with anyone’s. So again, McDonagh wants to show that nothing is just black or white, and that nobody is completely in the right, as we can see in some of the discussions between the main characters.
The only antagonist, if we could call him that way, is Officer Dixon, played by the brilliant Sam Rockwell, who won the Golden Globe for this role just last week and is the frontrunner to take home the Oscar in March. He really is the corrupt, racist and dumb cop we picture when we think of this stereotype. He doesn’t do his job, he doesn’t accept criticism, and instead of trying to bring normality back to Ebbing he just stirs things up by imprisoning people or throwing them from a first-floor window. As a matter of fact, the audience spends half of the movie thinking: what are the standards for becoming a police office in the Midwest? Nonetheless, Dixon finally becomes that unexpected hero we had been waiting all along and, even if things may not go like they do in movies, his effort, forgiveness and sacrifice gives us some kind of hope that humanity may not be as horrible as we may have thought.
After watching the movie, one cannot help but wonder, how can a small action cause such a tsunami of emotions, hate and destruction in this small village? How can three billboards on the side of a road reveal the dark side of our psyche? It is easier to turn our heads away and pretend nothing happened, or forget about tragedy once the acceptable period of mourning has passed? What happens to those whose lives were altered by those events? What happens to those who have not yet brought justice, as they promised to do?
Even though the movie was written eight years ago, it is easy to draw parallels with today’s society, as it is probably one of the most timely movies of the decade: police brutality and inefficiency, sexual assault or racism (the similarities with the Arpaio case are evident), as it seems that we live in an age where torturing innocent people is more of a priority than protecting women from actual criminals or working to solve their cases once it’s too late. These are all elements that sadly define the United States right now.
It is not difficult to understand why Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, clinched four Golden Globes, including the top prize, last week, as it is a well-constructed piece that makes everything fall into place. McDonagh’s latest picture has it all: it has clever, funny dialogue, complex characters, great performances and, above all, a story that feel real and that has not been manipulated to fit into the Hollywood standard of what a revenge movie should be. One of the first songs played in the movie, as Mildred drives for the first time by the abandoned billboards is Streets of Laredo, by Johnny Cash, and it seems no coincidence: Mildred is the lone cowboy we had been waiting for. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood can step aside; Mildred Hayes is the hero this new generation needs.