Here is a shocking fact, prior to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri I hadn’t seen any of Martin McDonagh movies. That’s right, I had not seen Seven Psychopaths (now I have!), and In Bruges (still haven’t but it’s high on my watchlist), and I’m very embarrassed by this. Though, I feel like jumping into Three Billboards (I’ll refer to it as such from now on because man what a mouthful of a title!) blind and unaware was the best kind of way to experience this black comedy and its even darker theme.
Black comedies have a tendency to win over some, and offend others. There’s just that subtle line a black comedy crosses that might tip the scale of likability for the viewer, and it’s the script, direction and the acting, that could change the overall outcome of the movie. Three Billboards walks on a very thin rope when it comes to being likeable and dislikable, and even though I liked it, I also see why some might not.
In the center of the story we have Mildred (Frances McDormand), a mother who has lost her daughter in the most horrible way possible – she was raped and murdered. It’s been seven months and the case has no leads, so Mildred decides to give a push to the authorities, mainly Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), because she is certain they are not doing their job properly. She rents herself three billboards, puts up the message, and all hell breaks loose.
From the beginning, it’s Mildred versus the authorities, and the viewer is expected to root for Mildred. But when Willoughby decides to do something about his own situation, it becomes more difficult to see the good in her actions. Mildred, for a lack of a better word, is an anti-villain of the story, because she needs closure for her daughter’s murder, but is willing to cross the line to do so. Putting up the billboards might have seemed innocent at the time, but it acted as sort of a catalyst for the police department and its members. Do we like her less because of her actions? This and that, because it’s hard to dislike someone who is doing things for a good cause.
Out of all the characters, Mildred is not the least likeable though, that title goes to the racist and homophobic Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who does some horrible things. Some of these things are mentioned, some happen during the movie, and yet, it’s hard not to see the similarities between him and Mildred. They just have very different view-points of the world that sets them apart, but in a way, they both have the tendency to cross the line. It’s like their almost two peas in a pod, both on either side of the morality line, but both almost crossing it. Mildred in this case is the one with better morals, yet, it’s clear she is slowly losing them because of her grief and lack of closure.
Three Billboards is a heavy movie, and I think I could spend hours discussing its morality and means of finding justice, not to mention its open ending that has raised some different opinions. I’m not going to spend those hours on it today, but I will say that for me, the ending wasn’t satisfactory but not because it didn’t bring closure. My personal beef with the ending was the fact that I felt like Mildred was now standing on that line, ready to cross over completely, and I’m not sure if that’s the kind of message I want for such a heavy and brutal topic. Especially considering what is happening around us at the moment. Seeking justice to a certain degree is an acceptable act, but seeking revenge based on a hunch, isn’t something that I would consider a moral thing to do.
Granted, some might argue that they did not go through with it, and that they were simply driving, but it was also implied that they will decide when they get there. So the open ending wasn’t about not finding justice for Mildred’s daughter, but whether Mildred really did cross the line completely. Then again, that moment works completely differently for Dixon, who’s character development works the other way around. But the more I think about it, the more I understand that this might have been the exact point to Three Billboards in the first place. Make us wonder if justice and revenge are simply different sides of the same coin, and make us question whether we can have one without the other when the law is helpless.
Anyway, I do want to say that even though these characters on paper sound completely awful, they are actually unique and special because of the people behind them. McDormand does a great job from start to finish. She has so much screen presence and she demands attention, she demands to be seen, heard and liked. Rockwell though, and this is not because he is (also) officially a Golden Globe winner for this role, steals the movie effortlessly. And I say effortlessly because Rockwell plays this horrible man with such ease and lightness, that even while beating up a completely innocent man, you sort of root for him. Who the hell roots for an asshole? Well, if that asshole is portrayed by Sam Rockwell, I’m rooting for him!
Finally, I do want to say that even thought this review seems contradicting, I did enjoy Three Billboards. I enjoyed the performances, I enjoyed its humour, I loved Harrelson’s role and I cried because of him, which emotionally was the highlight of the movie. Will it be something I would gladly watch again? Probably not. I don’t mind it as much, but I do think it’s dark themes are a little bit too heavy for me, especially viewed through that black-humour lens. Though I don’t think there is a bolder and more honest statement about rape and grief made in movies than Three Billboards, and for that, I’m grateful that this movie exists.