Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, ran away with plenty of hardware from the Golden Globes last night, including for Best Drama, and it’s only fitting: In a year filled with so much rage, Three Billboards seemed a fitting entertainment capstone. It’s a Molotov cocktail of a film, filled with fire and fury that seems ready to burn the movie screen down.
But its message goes deeper than that. And I wonder whether some folks are missing its real point.[Warning: To get to that point, we’ll be getting into spoilers.]
The three billboards themselves are indeed provocative. “Raped while dying,” one says; “and still no arrests?” says the second; “how come, Chief Willoughby?”
Grieving mother Mildred Hayes (played by Golden Globe winner Frances McDormand) rented those billboards, challenging that the Ebbing police force to solve her daughter’s murder. It’s a reasonable request: What mom wouldn’t want her daughter’s killer brought to justice? She has every right to expect and demand justice. She has every right, I think, to be angry.
But in calling out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a well-respected man dying of cancer, Mildred crosses a line in the town. Instead of dutifully playing the role of a grieving mother, Mildred becomes a pariah. High schoolers throw drinks at her car when she drops her teen son off at school. A dentist seems ready to yank out one of Mildred’s teeth just out of spite.
Each provocation leads to retaliation—an ear for an eye, a toe for a tooth. And when Willoughby kills himself in his own horse stable, Dixon’s rage redlines. He stalks over to Red’s office and throws him out a second-story window, then goes out into the middle of the street and beats the bloodied man nearly to death. Someone sets Mildred’s billboards on fire: Mildred responds by firebombing the police station.
Some have called the blisteringly profane Three Billboards “one of the angriest films in recent memory,” and that’s a fair description. And some have pointed to Frances McDormand’s Mildred as something of a feminist hero—an iconic character filled with righteous anger that seems perfect for the rage of the #MeToo movement.
But I think some lose sight of one simple, obvious fact: Mildred isn’t the movie’s hero. Not entirely, anyway. She’s both villain and victim, too—as angry with herself as she ever could be with Chief Willoughby.