For quite a while after I watched Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, I couldn’t quite figure out how I felt about this bleak, scathing, deeply violent, and acidly funny film. It wasn’t until I was chatting with my partner about it, that it finally dawned on me. What was this movie about, really? Sure, it’s about a grief-stricken mother’s desire for justice for her murdered daughter, but to me there seemed more to it, some greater comment that the film was making (whether wittingly or unwittingly remains unclear).
It’s about the brokenness that’s slowly rotting away at the center of America.
To fully understand how I came to this conclusion, it’s important to both know what happens in the film and how it happens. Three Billboards details Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand’s) pursuit of justice for her daughter, who was raped, murdered, and burned. She particularly blames the police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who happens to be suffering from pancreatic cancer. Her crusade enrages officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a policeman who has already fallen under suspicion because of accusations that he tortured a black suspect in his custody. As this drama unfolds, we get a tortured, razor-sharp glance into the despair that seems to have set in in this small town in Missouri.
There’s something almost of a Greek tragedy about McDormand’s relentless desire to avenge her daughter. A modern-day Clytemnestra, her daughter’s brutal murder has forged her into a formidable weapon, one that has one destination that she is determined to reach no matter the cost. As capable as she is, however, she has her own prejudices, ones that, I would argue, are built into the privileged position she occupies as a white woman in Missouri. She throws out epithets with a careless abandon that are almost breathtaking in their effrontery, as when she torments Jason with the “n-word,” calls a fellow townsperson a midget (he’s played by Peter Dinklage, whose enormous talents are rather wasted in this role, alas), and she insults the dentist for his fatness. She’s a character so broken that she doesn’t even bother to hide her contempt for those who occupy a lower social strata than she does. The fact that she has black friends doesn’t keep her from using what is arguably the harshest racial slur there is when it suits her. And it also doesn’t keep her from being crude toward her only suitor in the film, whom she casually dismisses when it suits her and uses him in other cases.
Indeed, Ebbing is a town full of broken people. The houses cling to the hills, and the people are beaten down. To some extent, this film has something distinctly noir-ish about it, the sense that there really is no right or wrong, just a bunch of sad folks shuffling through life trying to grab what little bits of meaning they can. For Mildred this is seeking her daughter’s killer, for Willoughby it’s trying to find the killer and enjoy the last bit of time has with his family before his cancer takes him, and for Jason…well, I guess it takes the form of his desire to be a good cop. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.
The film takes great pains to show how truly pathetic Jason is–a 40-something man who lives with his worn-out mother, whose only calling has been as a policeman. Rockwell imbues Jason with a certain ignorant belligerence, the sort of guy who got along well enough in high school but pretty much knew that he wasn’t going to ever leave his hometown. He’s fiercely loyal to his police chief, but I for one found him to be the most infuriating type of character. The film tries to grant him some sort of nobility, but I was left unconvinced.
Harrelson, however, does do a fine job portraying Bill, bringing his characteristic charm. I’ve always been a fan of the sort of careless charisma that Harrelson seems to exude. He’s crude, yes, but also intensely loving and, yes, noble. Of all the characters, he is perhaps the most likable, but he too is broken, his body inevitably failing him. The fact that he cannot solve the film’s central case renders his life tragic.
Three Billboards does possess a certain beauty to it, though, and it contains a number of scenes showing the rugged beauty of the landscape. As I was watching, I kept feeling the unsettling tug of familiarity. These could be people that I had known and grown up with. Part of this, I suspect, stems from the fact that the film was shot in the Appalachian parts of North Carolina, which bear more than a passing resemblance to my own home of West Virginia. Perhaps that’s why I felt (and still feel) a profound ambivalence about the film.
As I think about it, I continue to be perplexed by the film’s seeming agnosticism regarding Jason’s torturing of a black man in police custody. The film clearly has a fondness for even its most reprehensible characters–the redemptive arc it grants to Jason is particularly galling, especially in this political climate–and this leaves a distinctly bitter taste in my mouth.
If the film succeeds at anything, though, it is in showing us the bleak despair that has settled like a miasma into the heart of American consciousness. What we are supposed to do with that realization, however, remains unclear.