By Tracy Wang
Directed and written by Martin McDonagh, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is a dark comedy film of a story in which a mother tries to use words on three billboards to urge the local police force to find the murderer and rapist of her daughter. The film is threaded with sarcastic, funny lines as well as unexpected turns of events; a film of significant emotional impact, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ uses three billboards to shake not only the local police but also audiences who are taken on a roller coaster ride of guilt, grief, anger, violence and eventually, a little bit of hope.
The film begins with a single divorced mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), going to the advertising company in town, and paying for three accusatory sentences on three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. With messages of ‘raped while dying’, the police force is targeted. Because the police force caught no one for her daughter’s murder seven months ago, Hayes is outraged, and determined to push them to find the murderer. However, the investigation goes nowhere, and the townspeople are turned even more against Hayes, after Chief Willoughby committed suicide. Devastated by the Chief’s death, the racist officer, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), assaults the workers at the advertising office; angry that her billboards are burnt down, Hayes throws cocktail bottles at the police station, in which Dixon is reading a letter from Chief inside. Unaware of the fire going on at the station, Dixon is burnt badly, but he manages to save the file of Angela, Hayes’s daughter. Will they be able to coexist peacefully? Will they be able to forgive, and choose love over hate?
Though the film is telling a guilt, violence-ridden tale, it manages to preserve a script which is full of humor and sarcasm. With clever retorts bouncing back and forth among characters, we too are caught in their anger, frustration and violence. Along with the superb lines, the film also successfully sets its tone in the very beginning and in the ending part. As a soulful opera song plays, we are shown the three broken and deserted billboards, one of which has an image of a baby whose face is incomplete on the billboard, and we are instantly brought into the grief, hopelessness and loneliness of a single mother who has lost her child. Similarly, the ending of Hayes and Dixon driving off to chase a rapist while deciding on the road whether they will kill him also leaves us in a somewhat more hopeful or ambiguous tone in which we as well as the characters are in the process of healing and recovering from the tragedies.
The almost two-hour film is full of significant themes, such as guilt of a parent, racism, police brutality, abusive household and bullying. Other than these themes, we are also presented with many memorable characters, Chief Willoughby, Dixon, Hayes’ ex-husband, his girlfriend. Since the tale is already heavy with conflicting and chaotic emotions of guilt, anger, and incompetence, the large amount of significant themes and characters, though adding more dynamics to the plot, can be daunting for audiences to fully absorb, and believe. The scenes of Chief Willoughby committing suicide by shooting himself in the head, and Dixon throwing the advertising worker out of the window are perhaps two scenes that are the most dramatic. They definitely serve as the 360 degree turns on the roller coaster ride of this film.
Even though the amount of themes and shocking scenes can be hard to take in at first, the film balances those heavy scenes out with tender, touching moments as well as a message of love instead of hate. The feel of the film can seem to be chaotic and loud, but the moments or images of tenderness are the ones that stay with us long after the film has ended. The scene of the advertising worker pouring a glass of orange juice for Dixon who threw him down the window is perhaps the most touching and revealing part of the film. This act of forgiveness and empathy is so rare and few in this film that we are completely thrown off our feet, but it does carry the message of how we can only move forward with forgiveness, not anger.
Other scenes such as Hayes meeting a beautiful deer near the site of her daughter’s dying place, and a teddy bear half-submerged in water, are the quiet moments in the film. Through these quiet but haunting scenes, we are finally able to reflect and ponder what the film is trying to tell us, and experience the most severe sense of loss and grief of a single mother who has lost her daughter, and two little girls who have lost their father. ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ manages to throw us into the violence of the world, and at the same time, bring us back to the realm of hope, forgiveness and justice with its well-written script, interchanging scenes of chaos and peace, and finally the desperate shouting of a mother on three billboards.