Frank Farley, PhD
Review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Director: Martin McDonagh
In a small Midwest American town three roadside billboards on an obscure road outside of town stand unused and in disrepair. A local woman whose daughter was raped and killed many months earlier rents the billboards and posts a short but different cryptic message on each one: “Raped While Dying”; “And Still No Arrests?”; “How Come Chief Willoughby?”
This strange behavior arouses emotion in the town with the apparent bias being against her action. The woman, Mildred Hayes, strongly played by the legendary Frances McDormand, wants action on solving this horrendous crime, where little or no police efforts are apparent. She resorts to this unusual billboard media effort to stir up some action. The film follows the reactions against her efforts as well as the occasional support, and the unresolved ambiguities of police and townspeople’s response to her and the crime itself. No one compelling perpetrator-candidate emerges throughout the film, and we are left in legal limbo on this crime at movie’s end.
This film belongs in the collection of movies that deny the viewer a resolution and display realistic and imperfect human emotion and interaction. Its tense moments, awkward interactions, impulsive outbursts, and strong expression reflect the real world.
We’ve been conditioned to find the hero and the villain in films; to pick a character to root for or against. This film brilliantly forces us to search for both within its characters, denying us that idealism. It revolves around the determined Mildred Hayes, Police Chief Willoughby, and Officer Jason Dickson. Willoughby, despite being the target of Hayes attack, stands out as surprisingly sympathetic and supportive of her struggle, and fights for peace throughout the film despite his battle with cancer and ultimate plan of suicide. Despite being a loving family man, his fault lies in defending the narrow-minded and often racist actions of his department, habitually acting as a father figure to Dickson. Dickson begins as a violent, racist, homophobic, childlike character whose emotional journey brings him to self-sacrifice on behalf of Hayes. He’s a prime example of how each character develops at different tempos throughout the film, with the viewer attempting to reconcile their negative traits with the positive actions they commit.
This movie is primarily a gritty in-your-face relationship movie, set among townspeople stirred up by Mildred’s actions, with little movement on the entering question of justice and who committed this heinous rape and murder. Themes of grief and a desperate need for action, even when ineffective, propel the plot forward. We witness painful and honest family interaction, and people’s most intimate emotional moments. At final curtain, nothing is solved, the three billboards have been burnt and rebuilt, the sympathetic Chief is dead, the Police Station has been firebombed by Mildred herself without significant consequences, a new African-American police Chief heads the department—setting a new tone among the several cracker cops, some personal relationships have been dramatically re-arranged, and the dour Mildred seems a bit more relaxed; but a large crime in a small town seems, at the end, unconnected. The movie is a study in character, motivation, and social psychology, with twists and turns, many questions, few answers, and lots of suspicions…