–by Nora Fitzgerald
Ebbing, Missouri is a quaint, thriving little town nestled in the forgiving green mountains of North Carolina.
Alright, the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was shot in North Carolina and the location doesn’t have the charmless, seen-better-days, character of the typical rural Missouri town, with empty storefronts downtown and Walmart and Dollar General handling most of the retail business from the outskirts. But that’s not the story here—a cast of characters struggling in a socioeconomic disaster, unable to provide for the family.
The struggles in Martin McDonagh’s new movie are strictly moral.
Mildred, played by Frances McDormand, had a daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) who nine months ago was raped, murdered and set on fire. Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, appears to have made a good faith but unsuccessful effort at solving the crime. He hasn’t talked to Mildred about the case in seven months. He’s dying of pancreatic cancer so it’s possible the energy he could have put into the job waned at some point. His main job now is to say goodbye to is beautiful, beloved wife and two young daughters.
Before her daughter Angela left the house on the night she was murdered, she asked Mildred if she could take the car. The two fought and Angela stormed away to walk to where she was going, screaming that she hoped she would be raped. Her mother shouted back that she, too, hoped Angela would be raped. Let’s just say that almost anyone whose child dies a violent death is going to lose something of their rational selves at least temporarily, but having wished it upon the child even though not meaning it, they might have an even harder time pushing away any self-blame. If Mildred feels blame, she has succeeded in burying it under a lot of anger and resolve.
Nine months later, frustrated about the Chief’s failure to continue the investigation, Mildred rents three billboards on a road near her house. Someone designed them well, with an expansive deep-red background broken only by a simple question spelled out in a clean and strong font in black. “Chief Willoughby, why no arrests?” is the basic message of the three billboards, stating it in a legally non-defamatory way since it’s only a question.
Chief Willoughby is understandably not happy with the billboards, and neither are most of the townspeople. But the most unhappy person is Deputy Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell. He is an immature, volatile man unnaturally attached to both his boss and his goading mother, and resented around town by some for an unspecified incident where he is said to have tortured a black man.
McDormand’s Mildred, with her intensely controlled focus and unapologetic attitude, is formidable. She stalks around town wearing a self-imposed uniform of a tight jumpsuit and gang-style headband. There’s a scene where she explains, crudely, to a concerned priest who has stopped by the house, that he is either with her (in her gang, she means, although she calls it a club) or against her, using the transgressions of the Catholic Church to illustrate her point. And if he’s against her, he’s as culpable as the killer.
The great McDormand is McDormand, and there is no question she can satisfy McDonagh’s directing style, originated in his background in stage production. Rockwell and Harrelson have to rise to the task and play their characters with the broader strokes of live performers who also use the movie camera for more intimacy. Harrelson’s delivery might at times seem a little stagey, but that’s not unusual for him. And this is a morality play in the end. See McDonagh’s movie In Bruges for a great example of theater captured by the camera—but not strictly as theater—with the lovely and austere medieval town of Bruges, Belgium as the stage.
There’s a good bit of violence in Three Billboards, for example where Mildred drills into a dentist’s thumbnail with his own drill. (Yes, he disapproved of her billboards. But, really, perhaps we have all wanted to do that to our dentist before,) Deputy Dixon also disapproves and perpetrates significant violence to show it, but he also receives it in his atonement.
As Mildred explains to the priest, you’re either in the club or not. You either have cancer or you don’t, and if you do, nothing but your own family matters. Your daughter was killed or she wasn’t, and if she was it doesn’t matter what you said to her before it happened, she’s your daughter and you’re going to do everything you can to avenge her death.
The town has mostly closed ranks around the Chief, joining his club and accepting that this is simply one more unsolved murder. Mildred has a few marginalized people on her side. Peter Dinklage is the town “midget” who tries to stand with her and Caleb Landry Jones (“faggot”) just does his job but gets caught up in the crossfire and Kerry Condon plays her black friend who gets jailed on a minor marijuana possession charge for her troubles.
It’s tempting to say that the weak, bullying Deputy Dixon turns out to be the moral center of the movie but there is no center. Things that Dixon did and does and may do and things that Mildred does and may do are inexcusable in most universes. And Chief Willoughby leaves his camp at one point to make an anonymous gesture towards Mildred in support of the billboards.
As Yeats wrote: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.