I thought more about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and how I appreciated how complex and tough the film was to watch. It was in the gray area a lot in terms of defining characters' morals, and while I appreciated that the film did not end with easy resolutions or a conventional ending, I was still left thinking about the complications of the characters, particularly how Sam Rockwell’s character, a violent and racist cop who is also a dimwitted momma’s boy, gets a redemptive arc that I did not feel was truly earned, and was trying to wipe away his earlier crimes for one good deed.
Frances McDormand was outstanding in the film as Mildred Hayes. I admired how she could emote so much in a clench of her jaw or a fixed glare on somebody, and her anger at her daughter’s murder going unsolved for seven months without any accountability for it was just seething in her body. She was fighting for her daughter’s sake through putting up billboards with intentionally shocking statements like “Raped while dying” and pointing fingers at the chief for not making any arrests. She placed the billboards in the spot where her daughter’s burned body was found, the grass still charred by her presence. She faced the police department by herself and demanded them to review the case again to keep it from going cold and forgotten, despite the lack of any matching DNA. She also received resistance and hate from the town for going up against their beloved police chief, treating her as a public nuisance instead of a grieving and angry mother looking for justice.
And as she was pushing all this energy out into solving her murder, at home, she was mourning her loss, lonely and devastated, blaming herself for her last memory of her daughter Angela being a fight, in which they had a morning shouting argument over Angela wanting to live with her father, saying awful things to each other, clearly not meaning it for real, and Mildred's face cringing in regret.
While her anger is righteous, her actions cause more pain than justice. As she drives with her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and they approach the billboards, he groans about the “rape route,” and outright says how he has been trying to manage each day without thinking of the death of his sister, and that her choice of words to describe her daughter’s last moments were unnecessarily graphic and hurtful to her loved ones. To paraphrase his reaction: “It’s not enough that she was raped, and it’s not enough that she was dying, but now I have to picture my sister raped while dying. Thanks, Mom.”
Frances McDormand will likely be nominated for an Academy Award for her emotionally devastating performance, though she may be in serious competition with Saoirse Ronan for Ladybird, and McDormand already has an Oscar from Fargo. This is definitely one of her best performances, and in a year where sexual assault/harassment cases are coming out more against powerful men, a story about a mother’s righteous anger over her daughter’s rape and murder with no arrests is even more pertinent today.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between Mildred and Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Mildred made Willoughby the target of her ire and blaming him for the lack of arrests. Willoughby takes the time to sit with her to explain that the case hadn’t had any leads, and not for lack of trying. Harrelson’s portrayal of Willoughby as a devoted family man and sympathetic police officer makes him one of the most likable characters in the film, as his eyes show compassion and care for the people of Ebbing. He takes Mildred’s verbal punches towards him, doesn’t try to deny her anger, and is accepting of her quest for vengeance. He truly wants Angela’s murder to be solved, but is limited by the lack of matching DNA and no eyewitnesses to her whereabouts, and the reality that many murder cases do go unsolved despite intensive police work on them.
Sam Rockwell delivers a difficult and complex performance as Jason Dixon, a good ol’ boy cop who has a history of racism and violence, while also having a dimwitted childlike personality, with his affinity for old-fashioned superhero comics and following his rough-voiced mother’s (Sandy Martin) commands. Rockwell hasn’t played a truly unlikable antagonist in many years, often playing charming rogues or soft-spoken Southern hicks, so this was an interesting change of pace to see him play this character. As Dixon, he tosses around racial slurs easily, slacks off at his job reading comics with his feet propped up on his police desk while Angela’s case folder rests nearby, and is often slow on the uptake when receiving news, stuttering with bad comebacks to Mildred’s insults to him.
But despite his dumb exterior, Dixon has a volatile streak to him, which likely went unchecked for his three years on the force as a component of police brutality, and his quick temper upon receiving devastating news leads to an irreparably violent act that costs him his job (though flawlessly shot in a continuous take that follows along Dixon’s path of destruction), and leaves him acting like a confused child instead of being the middle-aged man that he is.
While I appreciated that the film presented Dixon as a morally gray, three-dimensional character, and not just a stock villain, I was bothered that he did not suffer more consequences as a result of his violence, and that his redemptive arc nearly made me forget his terribleness, thinking he deserved to be a cop again before remembering why he wasn’t fit in the first place. I felt like because he attempted to do a good deed to both help the case and to impress the police department to get his job back, that he hadn’t really learned enough to improve and to control his anger. He was still allowing himself to be manipulated by his redneck conservative mother, and that he needed to do more internal work to truly understand where his rage and hate came from before he was allowed to be a cop again.
But despite that I had mixed feelings about this character, I do hope that Rockwell does get serious consideration from the major film awards ceremonies. I have been a fan of him for nearly twenty years, and admire him as an off-kilter character actor who loves 1970s films and digging deep into playing difficult people, and since the Oscars didn’t consider him for Moon in 2009, I hope they come around this time for him in Three Billboards.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a darkly comic drama that explores themes of grief, loss, and revenge, and presents characters as complicated people who have shades of good and bad to them, and are fascinating people to watch. The film was sharply written and directed by Martin McDonagh, and beautifully shot in the North Carolina mountain town of Sylva. The film truly stands out as one of the highlights of this fall’s cinematic offerings.