Martin McDonagh’s latest feature is getting loads of critical favor and awards buzz. On top of being a dang fine film, the content of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a verifiable cross section of the buzzwords that are likely to compose this coming Oscars word cloud. Specifically, it leverages violence against women, police brutality, institutional malaise and even schoolyard bullying into a single and typically McDonagh-esque thought.
The film opens on the three billboards in question. They’re dilapidated at best with a patina of disuse that looks about 30 years thick. Mildred (Frances McDormand) drives by, stops and has an ah-ha moment. From there, the story is set in motion.
Mildred puts down a deposit on the billboards and makes known her intent to rent them out for a year. Each monolith gets one part of her message: “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” The statements refer to the violent murder of Mildred’s daughter, a crime unsolved 10 months hence and seemingly abandoned by local authorities. Mildred’s message courses through the nearby town of Ebbing with the certainty and violence of a tsunami. The town’s dispossessed seem vaguely inspired by the sentiment. Finally, someone is standing up to the system which fails more than it works. The (white) men who uphold and revere that system, however, are dumbfounded, appalled and seem ready to upend Mildred’s vigilantism. The law and order must be restored, with their version of reality being the only acceptable option available.
Most of the attention lavished on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri lingers on Mildred as a feminist hero-slash-antiheroine, as well as on the redemptive arc offered to the bumbling, racist and violent cop named Dixon (Sam Rockwell). It’s been noted plenty elsewhere that McDonagh wrote this film nearly a decade ago. Frankly, it’s pretty incredible that a single creative work of such age could so presciently employ today’s issues as its narrative. As a result, however, the problematic nature of McDonagh’s politics are also well-covered and deservingly pooh-poohed. Mildred is no “iconic female hero,” despite quips by the director affirming such a notion.
Tapping into current events isn’t what makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a dang fine film. People seem to be confusing this flick with some sort of message movie like Wind River (also a fine production, but clearly rooted in a hot-button issue). McDonagh’s film is as much of a message movie as summiting Mount Kilimanjaro is a relaxing family-friendly vacation.
The fourth word from the title helps anchor one’s understanding of the journey: “Ebbing.” It’s root, of course, is ebb and describes the tide retreating out to sea. A joining is implicit, the making of something whole again — made possible only due to a separation. Mildred’s journey, in particular, performs this action. She is cleaved from society halfway by the death of her daughter and then fully by society’s implicit willingness to accept that killer within its ranks.
Mildred develops a distinctly Manichean view of the world. What happened to her daughter was pure evil, the person(s) who committed the act are pure evil and society is pure evil for its willingness to ease and abandon the pursuit. This is best illustrated in a near-famous scene wherein Mildred explains to a priest his culpability for joining and remaining part of a “gang” riddled with pedophiles and rapists.
In each their own way, the townsfolk of Ebbing try to negotiate, resist and explain their own culpability. The original sin of society is that some folks wield power and others are subject to power. The journey of each human creature is to determine on a minute-to-minute basis how they will wield the power which they are granted and live with the consequences of their actions.
If Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri carries a lesson or otherwise some underlying thought, then it must be that the abusers of power are struck and wounded, too, and that forgiveness and understanding offer a difficult, if imperfect, salve.
Clayton Schuster (@SchusterClayton) is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He bleeds words about arts and culture for Vague Visages, Hyperallergic, Hi-Frictose, Midnight Pulse and other outlets. He is also a screenwriter for Lunaventure Productions and has a book on art feuds out in 2018 with Schiffer Publications. If he’s not reading or writing, then chances are he’s being bullied around by his Formosan Mountain Dog named Willow.