Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Is A Study In Depression And Shitty People
And, that’s why I love it so much.
Martin McDonagh loves to explore this type of world, and nothing has changed with his newest movie starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell.
Months after Mildred Hayes’ (McDormand) daughter was raped and murdered, no suspect has been apprehended. She decides to put up three billboards calling out the police chief for not having done enough to catch the man who did it.
What ensues is a black comedy that thrills and shocks, and should find a place in numerous Oscar categories with nominations. That’s good and all, it’s much deserved, but what’s more interesting to me is the fact that hardly anyone in this film is likable; that’s a great thing for cinema in my opinion.
Far too often we feel the need to explore characters that, while flawed, have to be nice and sympathetic. Hardly anyone in this film fits those guidelines.
Let’s look at Mildred for a bit. By all accounts, she’s a real piece of shit. She lost her daughter, and she was abused by her ex-husband, which instantly makes us feel for her. But hey, even awful people have shitty things happen to them. She sets the movie off by paying for three billboards that, somewhat graphically, remind everyone who drives past them that her daughter was “raped while dying,” and that nothing has been done about it.
Mildred curses at her children, says the word, “cunt,” like it’s going out of style, and burns down a police station to try and get a rise out of them. She verbally abuses multiple people throughout the town, and doesn’t take a lick of shit from anyone. And it’s perfect. She’s a southern mother, who obviously has thick skin, but can’t get over the fact that the man who raped her daughter is still out there. So yeah, she’s a bit rough, but it’s the exact character we need in this role.
Jason Dixon (Rockwell) is a bit of an outlier only because his character arc allows him to change by the end of the film. He starts off absolutely deplorable. He’s still on the force after allegedly beating up a Black man, and then brutally beats up a man before he throws him out a second story window. He’s an assumed racist who only respects the authority of Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Harrelson).
Again, why the fuck not include a character like this? This is a predominantly White southern town, it adds another layer of depth and truth to this setting. It also helps that the character is dumb as a post, and lives with his mother who is worse than he is. The tension works so well because we have two characters who are basically brick walls. Mildred will do anything to keep those billboards up and cause trouble for the police, while Dixon will do the same to protect Willoughby’s image.
It allows us to keep guessing as to what will happen next. If he’s thrown a man out of a window for just renting out the billboards, what the hell is he going to do to Mildred?
Willoughby is really the shining beacon of likability in the film, and he’s no saint. You can argue that he knows the truth behind the possible racial assault Dixon was involved in, but he’s kept Dixon on the payroll. We find out early on that he has cancer, but that doesn’t stop him from cursing in front of his kids, or making up an asinine game to keep them occupied so he can fuck his wife.
So, when we lose him halfway through the film, we lose what little moral compass we had. His death is tragic, and it’s amazing how much Harrelson has made us care for this loveable asshole. Again, Harrelson is good at that. All of his characters are a bit bristly at the least.
Because Willoughby was the most likable character, we’re intrigued by what he saw in Dixon. It all comes to a head when Dixon reads the letter Willoughby wrote to him before his death. It details exactly what the audience needed to get into Willoughby’s head, and just enough for Dixon to change as a character. Somehow, we come around on a guy we initially only liked to laugh at or hate.
This change is only believable because Dixon is such an idiot. The absurd faith he had in Willoughby makes it completely believable that if the man he idolized so much believed that he could be a better human, then damn it, he will be that better human.
Granted these types of characters are inherent in a Black comedy, a genre we’ve seen a lot of this season, it still doesn’t mean we see such brutally tough to love characters often. As more and more writers attempt to work in a genre that the Coen Brothers had on lock for so long, we will get to see interesting takes on these rough around the edges type characters. See Ingrid Goes West if you haven’t. Aubrey Plaza does great justice to such a character.
If anything, this is an article that’s praising the rise of Black comedies and Martin McDonagh for being the type of writer who isn’t afraid to put such brash humans on screen, and not apologize for it. Also, for Frances McDormand who absolutely kills it in this particular piece of art.
Don’t go see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri unless you’re ready to laugh at some truly awful shit.