Skip to content

Signs and Blunders

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri aims for moral complexity and comes up long

Angela Hayes appears just once in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. We meet the teenager whose unsolved murder propels the film’s plot in a flashback. During an argument over a party, Angela (Kathryn Newton) counters her mother Mildred’s (Frances McDormand) drunk-driving concerns by protesting that Mildred drove her kids around while intoxicated when they were little. Mildred claims she only did that to escape their abusive father, Charlie (John Hawkes). Angela calls her mom a cunt. “There will be no cunts in this house,” Mildred announces. Her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) can’t resist cracking, “Are you moving out?” In the end, Angela makes the passive-aggressive decision to walk to the party. “I hope I get raped on the way,” she says. Mildred’s response: “I hope you get raped on the way, too.”

Well, she does. Although the film’s writer and director, Martin McDonagh, spares us the gory confirmation, it’s clear the conversation takes place on the day of Angela’s rape and murder.

It’s a quintessential McDonagh scene. The Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker makes dark, ironic, serpentine comedies where the ethical landscape is always shifting and profanity is dispensed with obvious glee. In Three Billboards as well as his older features, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh metes out essential context slowly enough—and shows characters changing their own principles and aims often enough—to manipulate viewers’ sympathies. First we’re sure one person is in the right. Then they do something horrible, and the villain becomes the hero. Soon, we realize everyone’s behavior is morally reprehensible. Or, wait, maybe it’s all morally defensible. By the end, we’re caught in a tangle of irreconcilable motives and philosophies, embarrassed that we were ever so naive as to believe in good guys and bad guys.

McDonagh’s gags, aimed at preventing us from sympathizing too deeply with any one character, end up trivializing a genuine tragedy.

These whiplash-inducing object lessons in relativism often work. In Bruges asks whether a hitman who accidentally kills a child deserves to be bumped off as punishment—and if there’s even any point in drawing a distinction between the moral codes of three professional murderers. Black humor comes with that territory, and if we’re laughing at the characters, we can’t get too emotionally involved in their dilemma to consider it rationally. But McDonagh overstates the moral complexity of the scenario he sets up in Three Billboards, then breaks his own unstated rule by choosing a hero anyway. Gags apparently aimed at preventing us from sympathizing too deeply with any one character only end up trivializing a genuine tragedy.

When the story begins, Angela has been dead for seven months and Mildred—a more unhinged version of the wonderfully prickly woman McDormand often plays—has finally found an outlet for her paralyzing grief. Three disused billboards stand by the side of a virtually abandoned road near her house, their surfaces palimpsests of ancient advertisements and shoddy repair jobs. She spends her savings renting them out. “RAPED WHILE DYING,” reads the first one, in bold, black capital letters against a red background. Then: “AND STILL NO ARRESTS.” The final sign is the controversial one: “HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

The question is directed at Ebbing’s police chief, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), whose investigation into Angela’s murder has turned up no promising leads. In an interview with the local TV news, Mildred fumes that the cops are too busy targeting black residents to put any effort into finding her daughter’s attacker. The few black characters in the movie confirm that assessment, but the backlash is immediate. Neighbors who had sympathized with the Hayes family become openly hostile. After administering novocaine, a dentist informs Mildred that Willoughby has many friends in town; his tone of voice suggests that the comment is actually a threat. A priest visits, urges her to take down the billboards, and guilts her for missing church. Mildred responds with her best rant in a film packed with them, comparing the Church’s child molestation problem to Bloods and Crips. “You join the gang, you’re culpable,” she insists.

Chief Willoughby is as friendly and polite as his accuser is vulgar. He’s also dying of cancer. Mildred knows that when she puts up the billboards. As she points out when he appears on her doorstep, they wouldn’t do much good if he were already dead. He reiterates to her that the cops haven’t made any progress because the murderer’s DNA doesn’t match anything on file. She suggests that they take a sample from every man in town, or maybe every man in the country. The demand is rational and irrational at the same time: it’s self-evidently impossible for any police force, especially one as tiny as Ebbing’s, to scour the nation for a criminal. It’s also sickening that Willoughby’s officers, particularly the sadistic Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), can’t take time off from beating and harassing black people to expand their search. This surely isn’t a place where detectives juggle difficult investigations of violent crimes.

A series of signature McDonagh twists follows Mildred and Willoughby’s tense conversation. He pushes his underlings to get serious about finding Angela’s killer, which suggests both that they really were slacking and that the billboards served their intended purpose. During a subsequent argument, she confronts him about racist cops, and he claims that if he weeded all of them out, he’d only be left with ones who hate “fags.” Then he suddenly coughs blood in her face. She softens for a moment.

When Willoughby dies, tensions in the town escalate. Mildred becomes a scapegoat. Dixon, a bigot who had seen the chief as a surrogate father, explodes into senseless violence. He has already punished Mildred for the billboards by arresting her black friend Denise (Amanda Warren, whose character is more of a bargaining chip than a real person) on a bullshit marijuana possession charge. There are more coincidences and ironies and reversals of fortune in the film’s final third than there are in an episode of a Shonda Rhimes show. This is purposeful. Mildred and Dixon’s character arcs begin to roller coaster.

McDonagh wants us to question why we automatically side with Mildred and revile Dixon, when both of their actions are fueled by the same destructive, uncontrollable emotion: anger. Like Shakespeare, he puts the moral of the story in the mouth of a fool. Charlie quotes his nineteen-year-old bimbo girlfriend (Samara Weaving, in a role so broad as to be distracting) to Mildred in a scene that marks a turning point for the character: “Anger begets greater anger.”

Inspired by Willoughby’s example, Dixon tries to redeem himself. Mildred does a few things that could get her committed to a psychiatric ward. By the end of Three Billboards, we’re supposed to see them as not just similar, but morally equivalent—which is, frankly, infuriating. One of these characters is a cop who abuses his power in every way imaginable, taking out his frustration about having to care for his elderly mom on innocent people. The other is a grieving mother and domestic violence survivor whose only initial offense is to bankrupt herself sending a message to the police who’ve apparently given up on her daughter’s case. So what if she’s also an archetypal bitch? Her quarrel with Willoughby is professional, not personal. Neither her nor Dixon’s third-act trajectory is realistic, which wouldn’t matter so much if McDonagh’s argument didn’t hinge on the mutability of believable personalities.

Worst of all, Willoughby comes out as the hero. McDonagh shows us tender scenes of him with his wife and daughters. He faces his own death stoically, and his perceptive words linger even after he’s gone, as guideposts for his two hot-headed foils. Harrelson’s folksy charisma is as convincing as McDormand’s exhilaratingly profane anger. If you had to pick a character to spend time with, Willoughby would be the obvious choice. But his illness and his gentility don’t excuse his professional negligence. He hasn’t just given up on Angela’s case; he’s also allowed racism to poison a police force that is ultimately his responsibility. Sure, his intentions are good. That doesn’t help the vulnerable communities he’s charged with protecting, though.

Humor in the film works to inoculate it against criticisms like the ones I’ve made above, nudging us not to take what we’ve seen too seriously.

The humor in the film functions in three ways: It gradually replaces our empathy for Mildred and our antipathy for Dixon with mild amusement, presumably in hopes of making us view both of them dispassionately. It forces us to go along with plot developments and character arcs that would never fly in a serious drama. And it inoculates itself against criticisms like the ones I’ve made above, nudging us not to take anything we’re seeing on the screen too seriously.

McDonagh has an excellent ear for comic dialogue, even if I’m certain I didn’t laugh nearly as often as I was supposed to. The story moves at a gripping pace. Performances by McDormand, Harrelson, Rockwell, and a supporting cast that includes Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, and Caleb Landry Jones are as finely calibrated as any you’ll see onscreen this year.

Still, if Three Billboards is solidly constructed, it is poorly conceived. McDonagh’s miscalculation is in preserving Willoughby’s dignity by making him the conscience of a story whose other characters are often the butt of jokes both childish and cosmic. The person who accepts his fate most graciously is the hero, not the person who is genuinely, morally right. Finally, McDonagh has solved one of his own convoluted ethical dilemmas, and come up with the wrong answer.