Pick of the Week: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a 2017 murder drama that is more about accountability than revenge. It tells the story of a single mother at her whit's end because the local police department is unwilling to do as much as they should about her daughter's gruesome death. A power packed watch for Mother’s Day!
“Raped while dying”.
“And still no arrests?”
“How come Chief Willoughby?”
“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” opens with these three sentences plastered on billboards, professionally designed, with a bold font for maximum impact. These billboards are put up by Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who has lost a teenage daughter who was raped and murdered. No culprit has been discovered. Mildred is convinced of the police’s incompetency and laziness in trying to catch the rapist, hence the billboards. The police are lazy, racist, homophobic and violent, of whom Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a perfect representative. On top of that, he’s sexually repressed, living under his mother’s shadow and in her house, a loudmouth loser who at once reminds us of characters like Norman Bates in Psycho and Edmund Kemper in Mindhunter.
Mildred is a tough and dangerous woman, seething with rage at the police’s inability, rather refusal, to pursue the murder case of her daughter and find the rapist. Her confrontational approach is justified by her suffering and her evident ability to see the truth. She puts up a tough fight with everyone, and she has fought with almost everyone in her life; with her daughter before she was murdered, with her abusive ex-husband, her son, and even with the chief of police, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Here we run into a conflict. Although Chief Willoughby does re-open her daughter’s file again, he’s also dealing with demons of his own. He is neither inept nor uncaring and tells her that he would do anything to catch Angela’s murderer, just so long as she takes down the billboards. But Mildred does not budge, not even when the town priest tells her that they are with her about Angela... but not about this.
Martin McDonagh’s tantalisingly gripping revenge drama boasts a fantastic screenplay, replete with genre typical fare of fear and violence (though not gratuitous) but also features a rare philosophy of care, and not pain. Angela, Mildred’s late daughter, is the classic ‘woman in a refrigerator’ trope, meaning she exists as a character who’s brutalised and ‘de-powered’ in order to motivate and propel the story arc of, traditionally, the male protagonist. But McDonagh is not interested in the gendered implications of this stereotype; he doesn’t write in the explicit brutalisation scene, and neither is the protagonist of his film a man.
Instead the writer-director turns the narrative tool on its head. In Three Billboards, we find that Angela is no longer just a sexist trope, but a feminist martyr because Mildred’s stubborn, ferocious and yet incredibly vulnerable heroine can do everything that a torn up, troubled hero would have. In fact, she goes even further. On discovering Chief Willoughby’s secret, despite being at odds with him, Mildred shows a moment of care and understanding. She soothes him and goes to get help, showing that the potential to demonstrate care, even to those who cause us pain, is always within our grasp. Our only reservation was that perhaps the screenplay could have taken a similarly decisive tone with the racially motivated violence depicted in the film through Jason Dixon’s character - unfortunately the grave implications of institutionalised racism are left uncomfortably, at loose ends.
Frances McDormand is the picture of rage and unsubdued grief and agony. Woody Harrelson is magnificent as the officer torn between his numbered days and his compassion towards Angela’s case. But the real victory in this film has to be Sam Rockwell, without whose astonishing performance, his character would have turned into caricature. Deservingly, both McDormand and Rockwell each took home an Academy, Golden Globe, BAFTA and SAG Award for Best Lead Actress and Best Supporting Actor, respectively.
Mildred Hayes comes off as a hitman of sorts, she certainly has the soul of one. But she’s only a frustrated mother who has lost her only daughter to horrific sexual violence. The film however, is not just a story of her confrontation with the police, rather, about how sexual violence is dealt with by the community as a whole and our universal apathy to it. It is a film that complicates our perception of what exactly morality is. It is heartbreaking, morbidly funny in places and stands squarely on the shoulders of McDonagh’s excellent writing and the stellar performances of its cast. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was one of the best films of 2017, and possibly, of the entire decade.
Available to watch on Disney+ Hotstar and Youtube. Martin McDonagh is the award winning Irish-British playwright, screenwriter, producer and director behind films such as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Brought up in London, he is considered one of the most acclaimed living Irish playwrights of today.