Film

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri

February 2018

 

 

Text Samantha Van Hoozer

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not a film designed to make the audience feel comfortable. From Frances McDormand's opening scene as Mildred Hayes, listing curse words "you can't put on a billboard," it's clear that Martin McDonagh, the film's writer and director, is not afraid to push buttons. Through the use of exaggeration, satire, and black comedy, the film confronts issues of rape, domestic violence and racism.

 

Set in the small rural town of Ebbing, Missouri, the film tells the story of Mildred Hayes, a survivor of domestic violence and mother whose daughter Angela was raped and murdered less than a year prior to the start of the film. After seven months, the local police department has made no arrests, so Mildred decides to take them to task. She puts up three billboards on the road where her daughter was killed, calling out the police department, specifically Chief Willoughby, played brilliantly by Woody Harrelson, for their lack of action and incompetency.

 

This doesn't go over well with the police department or many of the town's residents, who hold Chief Willoughby in high regard, and see Mildred's billboards as a personal attack on his character. What these residents are heartlessly overlooking is Mildred's unimaginable pain and suffering as a grieving mother. Her daughter died in the most violent way possible, and the only shred of hope and comfort that Mildred can hold on to is the thought of the killer being found and brought to justice.

 

Frances McDormand delivers an absolutely stunning performance, one that should win her the Oscar for best actress without question, allowing the audience to feel the range of Mildred's emotions-rage, pain, sorrow, hopelessness, and most of all determination. She is a heroine who isn't going to let anyone stand in her way. By whatever means necessary, she will not allow her daughter's rape and murder to become just another unsolved case. What makes Three Billboards such a poignant and moving story is that Mildred's plight is one shared by many women and mothers that is often overlooked. Rape and assault cases are consistently not given the attention and resources that they should, and Three Billboards highlights the injustice of this expertly.

 

Another topic that Three Billboards attempts to tackle is racism and its presence in law enforcement. The Ebbing police force is overtly prejudiced, with some of the officers even being blatantly racist. Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, is one of these officers. He is an angry, hateful, brute of a man with a short fuse who has been accused of beating a black man in his custody in the past. He makes it his mission to harass Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the proprietor of the company responsible for Mildred's billboards, putting his anger and short temper on full display in a brutal scene in which he severely injures Red.

 

Officer Jason Dixon has proved to be a controversial character, as some viewers have taken issue with the storyline that ultimately gives him a redemption arc, feeling that it excuses his racism and past actions. However, this character's transformation can also be seen as an illustration of an individual's ability to change for the better when exposed to a positive influence. For Dixon, this influence was Chief Willoughby, who helped him to see that his actions were driven by a hatred that had started with his parents and been cultivated throughout his life, not something he truly believed in his heart. People are complex and rarely as one dimensional as they appear. Sam Rockwell portrays this complexity brilliantly, delivering a nuanced performance that at times leaves you feeling infuriated and disgusted, but also hopeful that people really can choose to change their ways, without excusing their past behavior and actions. Jason Dixon's character transformation is one of the most fascinating in the film, and Rockwell's incredible performance should without a doubt earn him the Oscar for best supporting actor.

 

In essence, Three Billboards is a provocative study of human nature, violence, loss, hatred and perseverance. Ebbing, Missouri is a town full of miserable people desperately trying to survive in a world that they feel is out to get them. It highlights issues that make people uncomfortable and disturbed. Issues that many would rather look away from. Through irreverent humor and abrasive dialogue, Three Billboards grabs you by the shoulders and doesn't allow you to look away. It is a wonderfully unique and original story, a brilliantly executed masterpiece from Martin McDonagh.

 

Contributing writer Samantha Van Hoozer writes about Media, Art and Culture for Reno Tahoe Tonight. svanhoozer@nevada.unr.edu

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