Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is as black a comedy as they come. Set exactly where its title indicates, it tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a mother so angered that local police haven’t found her daughter’s killer that she buys ad space to declare it. The police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), and his dunce-like, possibly racist colleague, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), are not happy with the stark black and red billboards and what starts as a plea for justice, quickly turns into something more dangerous.
On some level, the film is about power and the way people wield it against each other. Mildred makes the first move, emasculating the police department by publicly calling them out. Given that female rage is having somewhat of a cultural moment, there’s something familiar about McDormand’s character. However, there’s also something about her that keeps her from fitting in with the women currently changing Hollywood by speaking truth to men in power.
While a murdered daughter and an abusive husband are used as excuses for Mildred’s actions, as the film goes on, we realize that she might just be selfish and mean. Why else would she simultaneously use and abuse a smitten neighbor or post the billboards with so little concern for how they’ll affect her son? In truth, Mildred’s self-righteous anger feels like toxic masculinity disguised in a woman’s body.
Strange as that may seem, there’s some basis for that interpretation. McDormand shaped the character after that most swaggering of American males, John Wayne, because she couldn’t find the right female touchstone. The question, though, is whether Mildred is more Stagecoach Wayne or The Searchers Wayne. Even writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) seems unsure. While there’s something to be said for the way the film gives the audience a vicarious release of rage, it’s up for debate whether the film properly critiques that rage. It’s tough to say without spoiling the whole movie, but what initially feels like an exploration of the limits of vengeance and justice eventually morphs into a deceptively simple message about finding common ground and an ending that sacrifices deeper meaning for ambiguity.
Granted, really critiquing the characters doesn’t seem to be McDonagh’s goal. Rather, he’s constantly subverting audience expectations with little concern for the overall result. It’s not a bad goal necessarily, but once you’ve grown used to the film’s patterns, it actually becomes both more predictable and less coherent. Again, it’s difficult to explain exactly how without spoiling major plot points, but Rockwell’s character provides the perfect example. For most of the film, he’s little more than a caricature of stupid, impotent, hyper-masculinity—and then he’s suddenly transformed by a deus ex machina plot device so facile it would be ridiculed in a freshman dramatic writing class. To be frank, the whole film feels a bit like an underdeveloped morality play, filled with big monologues and even bigger performances.
Some actors handle it better than others. Rockwell is solid, but unable to convincingly sell Dixon’s transformation. Clarke Peters as a new cop in town is a breath of fresh, sane air in this town of grotesques and John Hawkes is dependable as ever as Mildred’s abusive ex-husband. Those characters, however, are meant as caricatures in a satire and McDormand is the only one who manages to craft a fully-formed human being. Mildred is not a plot device like Harrelson’s character. She’s a real person who’s lived a long, complex life. She’s extreme without being pat and McDormand will deserve every bit of Oscar buzz she gets.
Frankly, if anything is standing in McDormand’s way, it’s Mildred herself. She is a misanthrope to her core and it’s perhaps not as easy as it once was to root for an antihero. To his credit, McDonagh seems to be comfortable with that conflict. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri doesn’t give easy answers and every victory–including the ending–is qualified. It’s a sophisticated view of the world, but that’s not necessarily something we need to go to the movies to understand anymore.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is currently playing in select theaters.