‘Three Billboards’ explores violence, justice

Frances McDormand plays the justice-seeking protagonist in Martin McDonagh’s ‘Three Billboards’. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

By this point, you have probably heard of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Since the film’s debut late last year, Three Billboards has become a critical darling, sweeping award shows and emerging as an early frontrunner for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. After watching the film at Images Cinema last week, it is easy to see why.

At a time when many have wondered whether Hollywood is out of new ideas, Three Billboards’ story of a Midwestern mom’s last-ditch search for justice in the unsolved case of her daughter’s murder is utterly original, and the dilemmas that director Martin McDonagh asks viewers to wrestle with are as morally ambiguous as the cast of characters that he has brought to life. At the same time, however, the film’s blasé treatment of the titanic issues of racism and police brutality in America will be strikingly off-key for many viewers and has inspired vocal criticism. Whether the film’s treatment of race is discordant or whether it is consistent with the story’s small-town setting is a question you will have to answer for yourself, but what I can say for certain is that Three Billboards is a film well worth your time.

Three Billboards centers on Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), the aforementioned Midwestern mom whose daughter was brutally raped and murdered while walking home one night. Mildred lives in the quaint, fictional town of Ebbing, Mo., a believable but imperfect facsimile of small-town USA. By the time we join Mildred, her daughter’s murder is old news — and although the killer was never brought to justice and Mildred is still struggling with grief, her tight-knit community has moved on. Even the police chief, the dogmatic but earnest Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), and his hostile deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) have given up on the case for lack of any leads. But Mildred cannot just move on like Willoughby and Dixon. She is desperate for closure and needs her daughter’s killer brought to justice at any cost. In order to spur a renewed effort from the police on her daughter’s case, Mildred decides to rent out three billboards on the outskirts of town shaming Willoughby and his department: “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests?”  “How Come, Chief Willoughby,” the billboards read.

Predictably, these inflammatory messages cause quite a stir in Mildred’s sleepy community. Everyone in town knows about her daughter’s tragic murder, but everyone also knows Willoughby. He is widely respected as an honest man and a good cop, so his public defamation on Mildred’s billboards is not taken lightly. But even with her community turning against her, Mildred is unyielding. She proves herself to be willing to take any action, no matter how expensive, unpopular or violent, to find closure in her daughter’s case. This is where the central moral question of Three Billboards lies. Mildred’s willingness to go to any length to avenge her daughter is admirable, and in any other film her character would be heroic, but in Three Billboards, Mildred’s brutal, Machiavellian outlook on justice denies us that sense of moral clarity. This, and the film’s enticingly open-ended conclusion, leaves viewers with a profound question to ponder: how far is too far to go to avenge someone you love?

Unfortunately, the seriousness of this moral quandary is undercut by Adam Sandler-esque sequences of face-punching and crotch-kicking that attempt to steal a cheap laugh from the audience between some of the film’s weightier scenes. I understand that McDonagh is trying to portray Mildred as a woman who has lost everything, including her empathy, but I believe this senseless violence is too heavy-handed a method of getting that message across, and it cheapens Mildred as a character. Her rage is much more convincingly communicated through her verbal attacks, which are just as bruising as any of her physical ones. These moments, such as when Mildred tells off a television reporter, town priest or her ex-husband, thankfully exist in spades and are highlights of the film.

Three Billboards is not without its flaws, but the film’s confident writing and emotional storytelling, especially the truly career-making performances from McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell, more than make up for some occasional tonal hiccups. Three Billboards is a film that is both tragically funny and beautifully tear-jerking, but most of all, it is a film that delights in defying expectations. Without spoiling too much, I can happily report that beneath all of the anger, violence and grief, there is a story about compassion and the goodness that exists deep inside people that makes Three Billboards deserving of every award it has received.

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