Seven months ago, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) lost her teenage daughter, Angela, who was raped and murdered. The police department, according to Mildred, “is too busy torturing black folks to solve actual crime”. So she rents three billboards near a highway, which state: “Raped While Dying” “And Still No Arrests?” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”
It’s an arresting yet worn-out set up: a grieving citizen against a callous police department. But that, we soon find out, is just a ruse, a gateway to enter a different world, ask more complex questions. Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is primarily about people let down by their own selves. It hinges less on a story, the interplay between cause and effect, and soon evolves into a deeply philosophical inquiry, “What does it mean to live a good life?”
This drama would have been easy to slip into if its characters belonged to identifiable moral camps. But Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) isn’t evil. He is sympathetic towards Mildred, tells her that the department tried its best but couldn’t find any DNA matches. Willoughby is also suffering from cancer; he only has a few more months. Mildred’s grief, on the other hand, hasn’t made her virtuous. She’s angry, unfair, abusive. She injures a dentist, during the course of a consultation, by drilling his thumbnail. (He took Willoughby’s side.) She kicks two school kids in their gonads (one of them threw a can on her car). She insults a Father, accusing the church of shielding priests who “fuck alter boys”. (The Father came home requesting Mildred to take down the billboards.)
None of them deserved what they got. But how does that matter, the film seems to suggest. Mildred didn’t deserve her fate, either. We’re often drawn to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But McDonagh is interested in something else: How do we define ‘good’? Or: if there is no absolute, and if everything is based on perception – certainly true in Willoughby’s case; the people of Ebbing don’t know him personally yet think he’s a “loved man” – and if perceptions are receptacles of projections, and projections are designed to deceive, then what does that say about our judgements?
McDonagh keeps finding a way to complicate the story. He introduces characters, shows their flaws, makes us disapprove of them – an easy, default thing to do really – and then reveals their another side, where they’re as broken, as hapless, as human as us.
What do we do now? It’s easy to ascribe motives, throw labels and dehumanise ‘others’ when they’re different from us. It’s easier still to occupy pedestals, pat ourselves on the back, resulting from benign intellectual intolerance, which, at the end of the day, is still intolerance – not any different from the hardliners’. But what is tough?
Recognising where the differences originate from, nailing a shape-shifting ever-elusive beast. As the Portuguese writer José Saramago once said, “Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.” Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a quest to find that something.
Take, for instance, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a cop known for torturing black inmates. He’s also frequently drunk after work and, massively hungover the next morning, and flips through comic books to kill time. Even among the defective bulbs, Dixon isn’t the brightest. Yet, in McDonagh’s world, he’s not flattened through the hammers of judgement but rendered complete in light of context.
So the same Dixon has a pitiable life: incoherent because of speech defect and alcoholism, a loner living with his mother who, turns out, has racist views, too. (“Things were much better down South back in the day,” she says at one point.) The same Dixon later gets caught in a fire at the police station; it was set by Mildred. He somehow survives, gets multiple burns but more importantly manages to rescue an important set of files: of Angela Hayes’s murder. Mildred’s baffled, horrified expression tells its own story. Ideology – rigid, theoretical, patterned – losing out to man – amorphous, real, self-contradictory. McDonagh’s film has several scenes like these, where characters try to redeem themselves, not unlike our own efforts where we’ve tried convincing ourselves that we’re better than our worst moments. Good films nudge you to forgive the villains; great films ask you to forgive yourself.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri treats its other characters likewise. Every face, every story has two sides – truths blend with lies, smiles with sneers, machismo with vulnerability. McDonagh’s drama is, of course, not the first film to point towards these schisms, but its involvement and, more importantly, consistency in investigating human frailty is remarkable. It’s not the kind of film that relies on revelations or solutions. The world is pretty much as it is and will remain so. Our causes and revolutions – our collective moral outrage – will come and go. What will be left behind is us – with all our ugliness – and this world that we’ve helped destroy. But there is no running away, the film’s persistent inquiry implies because we’ve to do with what we’ve got.
But McDonagh, who has previously made In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, both uniquely absurd and whimsical, is also smart enough to know that a film is not just its social or political subtext, that it should also stand on its own otherwise. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is constantly alive by sharp writing, made all the more memorable by dark, unsparing humour, which, on the surface, looks out of place in a subject like this.
The humour here juggles two lexicons – straightforward banter eliciting instant laughs and its smarter offshoot, resting on attention to detail, making you chuckle almost in hindsight – that makes it shine even amid bleakness. McDormand and Rockwell’s performances, thoroughly deserving of their nominations at the 90th Academy Awards, further enrich this film. Their anger, resentment and bitterness, along with a muted desire to be understood, make Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a rare gem. It tells us to step into the sunlight, but before we grumble about another gloomy day, it asks us to check whether we’ve taken our tinted glasses off.