Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

By Marla DiPoto

When Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was released this past November, I was not initially compelled to run to see the movie, as someone who normally prefers the young adult-driven films among the likes of Lady Bird or La La Land. The trailer itself gave me the impression that it would be a rugged, indie style film chronicling the dismal lives of those who lived in a town devoid of justice; a narrative which I would not necessarily be able to connect with. Especially because the main character, Mildred Hayes, initially seemed like a coarse and rough character who I would not find appealing.

After finally seeing the film for myself, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Three Billboards tells the story of Hayes, played by Frances McDormand, who is distraught over the rape and death of her daughter, which occurred a few months earlier. Hayes is simultaneously tormented by the local police department’s lack of initiative to find her daughter’s murderer, namely Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson)  and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). As suggested by the film’s title, Hayes rents three billboards outside of the town which read, “Raped While Dying", "Still No Arrests?", and "How Come, Chief Willoughby?” in order to reignite attention to her daughter’s case and highlight the incompetence of the authorities. While quite a dismal subject on the surface, I became enthralled and captured by the stories and emotions that poured out of the film.

This film proves why movies are crucial and valuable. They allow us to learn about people and the world around us, connecting us by the complexity and beauty that is the human experience.

 Photo from Fox Searchlight Pictures

Photo from Fox Searchlight Pictures

A moment in the film that particularly stood out to me was with Officer Dixon and Red Welby, the local young advertising man who sold the billboards to Hayes. After learning of the death of Chief Willoughby, Dixon reacts in a fit of rage by assaulting and throwing Welby out of a window. Yet, after reading a note written by Willoughby in his final moments of life, Dixon attempts to redeem himself, though ending up with severe burns all over his body due to a fire at the police station. The scene begins when both Welby and Dixon arrive at the hospital together in the same room. Welby is unaware that the man in the room is Dixon, as he is heavily bandaged by the burns. Welby tries to comfort him by offering a glass of orange juice and saying, “Don’t cry, you’ll be okay.” We see Dixon’s eyes becoming red and filling with tears, realizing the extent of his damage on this young kid. Dixon says, “I’m sorry, Welby”, and Welby begins to realize who the man is. Initially, Welby seems to be angry and hyperventilates, with eerie music making the audience unsure of his next move. Yet, what we see is Welby bringing over a glass of orange juice for Dixon, turning the straw in his direction. It is amazing how this simple gesture speaks volumes in terms of representing forgiveness and understanding, bringing the audience on a rollercoaster of complexity for each character.

Yet, there has been questioning around the character of Dixon himself, speaking to whether he deserves redemption, as he is portrayed as a hateful racist in the movie. I do not believe the film itself is alluding to whether Dixon should or should not be redeemed as some kind of hero necessarily, but rather showing us that everyone deserves a second chance and that humans are complex in nature. Perhaps they deserve to be seen as multifaceted individuals rather than judged solely by impressions on the surface.

There are many other poignant scenes in the film which continually spoke to the complexity of the human experience and ultimately contributed to the fact that Three Billboards is a story of love, hate, redemption, hopes and dreams.

Three Billboards won Academy Awards for Best Actress, awarded to McDormand, and Best Supporting Actor, awarded to Rockwell. Personally, I believe this film deserved to take home Best Picture, due to its mastery of establishing connections between the characters and audience through a sense of brutal realism, honesty and a constant unexpected complexity.

In Rockwell’s Oscar acceptance speech, he notes a childhood memory when he was called down to the principal’s office, supposedly because his father had noted some situation with his grandmother. Rockwell soon found out that his father made the whole thing up, all in order to get him out of school to go see a movie with him. I really appreciated this anecdote, as it notes that even beyond awards or recognition, movies are about family and a desire for human connection. Three Billboards certainly left me with a feeling of hope for the future and a deeper understanding for those around me, which is all a movie can hope to achieve.

Marla DiPotoComment