Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Director: Martin McDonagh
Screenplay: Martin McDonagh
Comedy/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: November 10, 2017
Greg, did you ever think they’d make a movie about billboards?
There’s advertising everywhere, even in movies. Let’s recap:
We meet Mildred (Frances McDormand), a woman grieving her daughter’s rape and murder. She’s also upset that the police in her hometown of Ebbing, Missouri, are not making any progress in apprehending the perpetrator. She rents three old unused billboards just outside of town, and on them she displays in big letters, “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), and many of the town’s citizens want Mildred to take down the billboards.
Mildred won’t take the signs down and faces assaults by all the town’s people including her own dentist. Willoughby isn’t the redneck tough guy you expect. He is sympathetic to Mildred’s case, but after 7 months there’s not much more he can do. Then, he reveals that he has cancer. Mildred is not moved and pushes him to solve the case before his cancer consumes him. But before too long, he takes his own life.
Greg, Three Billboards is a true gem of a movie that is filled with memorable characters who all seem to be undergoing challenging life journeys. The film is a dark portrayal of human nature, yet it is also a depiction of one woman’s relentless campaign to triumph over that darkness. Writer and director Martin McDonagh may hail from Ireland but he has firm handle on the rot and muck of middle America.
Special kudos go to Frances McDormand, who unleashes an Oscar-worthy performance here. She’s a special kind of hero in that she is basically unstoppable. The mystery of who brutalized her daughter appears to be unsolvable, yet her Billboards open the door to clues about the perpetrator. Mildred reminds me of the character of Carol in The Walking Dead; she is a force to be reckoned with, and people pay a steep price in underestimating her.
Three Billboards is an unexpected pleasure. This is not a typical story of heroes and villains. Sheriff Willoughby looks like he might be an incompetent boob – but he’s actually the glue that holds the town together. Mildred seems like a woman without a heart – but she deeply cares about Willoughby and his fight with cancer. Dixon is a classic racist in a position of power – and we learn he’s little more than a child. We keep expecting people to be called out for their biases and ultimately we learn that everyone in town is human, flawed, and dealing with their own pain.
The other thing this story does is never resolve the murder. It is simply a McGuffin designed to throw these people together to expose their pain and flaws. Dixon is the most transformed because he has the furthest to travel towards redemption. He has to overcome the biases his (pure evil) mother has inflicted upon him. It’s Willoughby who is the catalyst for his change. In a posthumous letter he tells Dixon he’s a good man who mistakes hate for strength and tells him to embrace love. Dixon seems to absorb this advice and finally takes a beating to bring a rapist to justice.
Dixon’s transformation is fascinating because it raises the question of whether it is possible for a person to transform so quickly from extreme evil to extreme good. One could argue that such a dramatic swing defies belief and any notion of realism. Yet we know that big changes in character are reasonable given the parameters and goals of storytelling. Joseph Campbell and Richard Rohr argue that the veracity of a tale is less important than its ability to inspire, motivate, and educate its audience.
As you point out, Greg, Willoughby’s letter is the source of Dixon’s conversion. In our analysis of movies, we’ve found that great mentoring may be the most important determinant of transformation. We also know that great suffering can also be the impetus for change, and Dixon suffers tremendously when half his body is badly burned in the fire started by Mildred. Willoughby himself transforms when he softens his antagonism toward Mildred and even funds her billboards after he discovers that his death is imminent.
Three Billboards is a welcome change in pace from the summer blockbusters. It’s less a story as much as it an examination of a collection of characters. Everyone is flawed and in some kind of pain. It’s the slow exposition of these pains, and how each character deals with them that makes this a movie to enjoy. I give Three Billboards 4 out of 5 Reels.
Mildred is an uncommon hero. In many ways, she’s an antagonist for Willoughby. And she performs evil acts – like burning down the police station. Ultimately, she conspires to commit murder. In our book “Reel Heroes & Villains” we classify a hero who ends up as a negative character the anti-hero. Mildred is an uncommon anti-hero, but I think she fits the definition. I give her 4 out of 5 Heroes.
Nearly everyone in this story goes through a transformation. Mildred releases her anger, grief, and guild for the loss of daughter and trades it in for revenge. Willoughby trades in one great day with his family for his life. Dixon trades his race hatred for compassion. Three Billboards gets 4 out of 5 Deltas from me.
You’re right, Greg, Three Billboards is terrific movie-making and should receive several Academy Award nominations, especially for Best Picture and Best Actress. Frances McDormand shines as a woman on a mission to secure justice for her raped and slain daughter. Her methods are creative, extreme, and borderline cruel, but she succeeds in rattling the town’s crooked cages and getting results. This film soars on the big screen and is exactly the reason why we watch movies. I award it the full 5 Reels out of 5.
Greg, I have to differ with your assessment that Mildred is an anti-hero. She’s as strong a hero as they come, a true champion of uncovering the truth and delivering justice. Yes, she and Dixon are going after a rapist who didn’t murder her daughter. But this evil man’s victim was someone’s daughter and inflicted unspeakable pain on another person and a family. Mildred’s willingness to stick her neck out to achieve justice is exactly in keeping with the definition of a hero — there is personal sacrifice, great risk, moral courage, and a superhuman effort to bring justice into the world. Mildred easily earns the full 5 Heroes out of 5.
You’re absolutely right that transformations abound in the movie, with Mildred the source of all these conversions. She sets in motion a series of events that eventually transforms Dixon into a decent human being, and she also softens the heart of Willoughby. Does Mildred herself change? I’m not so sure, and for that reason I’ll award this film 4 out of 5 transformative Deltas.