Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

From the trailers it’s natural to assume that Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a Coen Brothers film, even though it’s not. [By the way, I noticed in the movie titles the “outside” is not capitalized, which struck me as odd, but now I see my spellchecker wants it left uncapitalized as well. So even though everywhere else the film is referenced online I’m seeing that word capitalized, I’m going with how it appears in the movie itself.] There’s the violence and foul language popping up in quirky, unexpected ways to humorous effect, and most notably Frances McDormand in the lead.

The actual film kind of has that same Coen Brothers feel, but I would say not quite as much as the trailers. Coen Brothers movies tend to be either out-and-out comedies (e.g., The Big Lebowski, The Ladykillers) or black comedies (e.g., Fargo). Certainly Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is closer to the latter than the former, but I experienced it as being weighted more toward drama than comedy, compared to, say, Fargo.

Like Fargo and other Coen Brothers movies—and like some of the best indie films—it has memorable oddball characters and entertainingly humorous quirky dialogue and situations. Certainly the lead character—Mildred Hayes (McDormand)—has some wonderfully rhythmic, attention-grabbing expletive-laden tirades (not to mention outbursts of weird, spontaneous violence). But the film had perhaps a bit less quirky humor (though, again, there’s some, and it’s quite good) than I expected, while at the same time being more thought-provoking and morally and emotionally serious than I expected.

Hayes is a mother whose adult daughter was recently raped and murdered. The crime has not been solved, and the police evidently are no longer aggressively pursuing the case. She decides that they need a fire lit under their ass, so she pays a fortune to rent three billboards on the outskirts of town, wherein she posts a message calling them out for what she sees as their dereliction, mentioning Chief of Police Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) by name.

The police are unhappy about this, Willoughby certainly is unhappy about this, and many of the townspeople (the white ones, anyway) are unhappy about this because while they are sympathetic toward her due to her losing a daughter so traumatically, they are pro-police and especially fond of the Chief. For that matter her son—the teenage brother of the murder victim—is unhappy about it, both because he takes grief about it at school, and more importantly because it stands as a constant, painful reminder to him of what happened to his sister.

Among the significant elements of context of which we are made aware from early in the film are that Chief Willoughby has terminal pancreatic cancer, and that there is a fair amount of tension between the police and the local black community based on the kind of police brutality and racial profiling that are endemic in this country, perhaps even more so than average in a place like small town Missouri.

The first of those two is developed into an essential aspect of the film, and is handled in a meaningful and moving way. The second, though, didn’t feel as satisfying to me. It felt like the kind of thing that maybe was supposed to be a major part of the film, and then was edited down significantly without being dropped entirely. So police racial misconduct comes up in the film in flashes, but mostly it’s referenced without being shown.

Lose that racial angle entirely and the film would probably be a little weaker but not substantially different. But were Chief Willoughby’s dying dropped, this really would be a different film, and in all likelihood not nearly as good.

There are clear reasons to like and root for Hayes. One, you can’t help but have sympathy for someone who lost a loved one in such a horrible way. Two, she’s a very dynamic, strong, determined person, fighting for what she believes in. Three, the movie gives her most of the funniest, most entertaining lines and scenes. Four, as far as the racial conflicts in the town and the alleged police brutality, she’s on the right side of such issues.

But ultimately it’s hard to see her as much of a hero, and you come to understand why many of the townspeople—despite their initial sympathy—lose patience with her and her antics.

She’s selfish in a way. On the one hand, the way she’s so strong and assertive seems decidedly unvictimlike. But on the other hand, the very fact that she’s so focused on her own pain, and so indifferent to what anyone else is experiencing, including as a consequence of her own actions, is a common manifestation of being victimized.

Willoughby makes a pretty good argument that he and his police force have not dropped the ball on the investigation of the crime committed against her daughter. Sometimes, he says, there simply aren’t any remaining leads to follow up, nothing more to do unless and until some additional evidence unexpectedly pops up. You can’t simply solve a crime by throwing more money or man-hours or whatever at it.

But she can’t or won’t hear that. As far as she’s concerned, they should just do more and more and more until the case is solved. She doesn’t care if she’s being fair to Willoughby and the police, or if devoting more resources to this cold case means taking them away from other worthwhile pursuits, or any of that—this is all about her and her pain.

(Well, at times she claims this is at least in part about protecting potential future victims by catching the murderer, but I don’t buy it. At most the risk to such hypothetical folks might be a small part of her motivation, but pretty clearly this is an emotional quest based on a hunger for revenge and a—possibly illusory—expectation that solving the case will provide her with some sort of “closure.” This is about her.)

Challenged—very politely and respectfully—by Willoughby on just what it is she’d have the police do, she responds with a call for the kind of simplistic, kneejerk, harsh, police state tactics that you’d expect to hear some pontificating blowhard down at the bar advocating as “common sense,” the sort of ideas that make Trump’s Muslim ban and border wall seem like nuanced, well thought-out policies. Willoughby points out that what she wants would violate civil liberties (to put it mildly), but that’s irrelevant to her, as she has no interest in anything beyond “Catch and kill bad guys to make me and people like me feel better.”

As mentioned, her actions have a negative effect on her own son, but she takes no notice of this until he explicitly points it out, and even then she doesn’t change her approach.

I never totally turned against her, but when you get right down to it, the bulk of her decisions in this film reflect the fact that she’s just not a nice person. In light of what she has experienced you can excuse that to some degree, but not fully.

She’s the main character of the film in most respects, and she gets by far the most screen time, but to me the clear moral center of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is Chief Willoughby.

Willoughby leaves behind three letters after his cancer death, which are read in his voice when the recipients open them. One is to his wife, one is to Hayes, and one is to one of his cops—Jason Dixon.

Dixon is the character that has been presented most unfavorably to that point. (At least of the major characters; his mother—whom he lives with and who dominates his life, at times to his embarrassment, I’d say is worse.) He is a crude, redneck alcoholic who clearly chose his line of work due to the opportunity it provides to exercise power irresponsibly and wreak a little mayhem, especially on black people.

Given the nature of the movie, however, his evil is presented with a certain amount of humor and oddball Coen Brothers-type dialogue. He is as much comic buffoon as villain. When Hayes tauntingly questions him about how “the nigger torturing” is going, he sarcastically corrects her that the proper term nowadays is “people of color torturing.”

This bit with the letters has the potential to be cliché-filled and hokey, but it’s arguably the most powerful thing in the movie.

The letters give you a sense of the depth, wisdom, and moral character of Willoughby. It’s not that that’s inconsistent with what we saw of him in life—I’d say he was a more positive than not character already—but it gives you more insight into him and into why he was so highly regarded.

There is beauty in his letter to his wife. Knowing how terrible it is to lose a loved one when he is still fairly young, he has left her and his young daughters the best message he can to try to soften the blow.

He brings the hint of a smile to Hayes’s face when he not only reiterates his sympathy for her and how much he wishes he could have solved her daughter’s case, but playfully lets on that in a way he even admired her troublemaking. Circumstances made them adversaries of a sort, but there’s clearly mutual respect there as well.

In the letters, especially the third one to Dixon, he challenges the recipients in effect to follow the better angels of their nature. With Dixon, I suppose my first reaction was “why are you wasting your time?” but in fact as the story further develops you appreciate that Dixon loved Willoughby as a father figure, and that maybe Willoughby really did spot something in Dixon that told him he had the potential to be a much better person.

You can interpret the rest of the movie as being about whether these folks will rise to Willoughby’s challenge.

Relatedly, an important message of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is that “anger begets anger.” (Given the film’s nature as a quirky indie, of course this truism is uttered by the ditzy 19 year old girlfriend of Hayes’s ex-husband, who admits she got it from a bookmark.)

Throughout the film, damaged people lash out. Hayes, Dixon, et al assume that their hatred, anger, desire for revenge, violence, whatever are justified, that they are only attacking bad guys, that in a tough world they have to do what they’re doing, etc. But in fact a lot of that is delusional. The people they hurt aren’t always the bad guys. Even when they think they have taken proper precautions, misinterpretations and unintended consequences reveal that their actions were far more reckless than they realized. Their anger isn’t water to douse the flames of evil, but gasoline.

Now, on a philosophical level, you can make the case that Willoughby is not the ideal proponent of love and nonviolence. Cop, like soldier, executioner, etc. is an inherently violent occupation. If you really believe that returning evil for evil can’t work, that anger and violence just generate more anger and violence, could you consistently make an exception for state violence, like war and a criminal justice system? Not to mention, he oversaw a police department that evidently had its share of problems of police brutality and racism.

But at least in death he presents these characters with a stark choice: Do you want to continue further down the “anger begets anger” road you have largely chosen so far, or do you want to try the alternative love and nonviolence road?

There is indeed evidence that all these characters have the potential to choose that second road. One such piece of evidence occurs while Willoughby is still alive. For just a few seconds, we see a very different side of the cold, determined, implacable Hayes, the woman who responded so indifferently and callously when Willoughby informed her of his cancer.

Hayes and Willoughby are talking. Suddenly Willoughby coughs up blood and is clearly in distress. Instinctively, Hayes’s expression is one of softness and compassion and a concerned “Oh baby” escapes her before she can prevent it.

So it’s there. It’s in Hayes. It’s in Dixon. It’s in Hayes’s sometimes violently abusive ex-husband. Presumably it’s even in Dixon’s nasty mother. (She does, at the very least, manifest a certain amount of affection for her son.)

There’s also a touching scene in a hospital room about contrition and forgiveness. So there are instructive examples available of alternatives to Hayes’s Charles Bronson-like obsession with revenge.

Will redemption come, or are they too deep into this cycle of damaged people asserting themselves by damaging others? Will they decide that Willoughby and a trite bookmark quoted by a dopey teenage girl are right, or will they continue to assume that they are exceptions, that their anger is righteous, that as long as their violence is carefully directed only at bad people to prevent or punish their bad actions then they are fine?

I won’t give away how the film’s ending answers, or doesn’t answer, that question. I’m undecided how to feel about it myself. When I saw the film, I suppose my reaction to the ending was, “Well, I didn’t hate it, but I wouldn’t say that’s my first choice of the ending I’d like to have seen.” But in thinking about it more, I’m not convinced what ending would in fact have been more satisfying to me. So I’m kind of coming around to appreciating it.

On the whole, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a solid film. It has its share of laughs, there’s some sharp dialogue, it’s well-acted throughout (including a small part—no pun intended—by the consistently excellent Peter Dinklage), and it raises and addresses important moral issues with a depth and seriousness that 10% at most of movies do.