Essay, Film Review

Oscar Watch: ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

Does this film need the underlying racism of a town to tell its story?

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The essay contains many plot spoilers and should be read after watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

A single action sparks the events in the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. The actors in the film all emote an underlying pain despite the film taking some comedic liberties. As is common with most films based in the south, racism has its place and is rooted in the character of the town. The main characters are all very conflicted. Every character has elements that are admirable and other elements that are clearly meant to be abhorred. No one is the good guy in Ebbing Missouri.

The film’s action is set off when Mildred Hayes played by Frances McDormand, mother of a teenaged daughter who was violently raped and murdered, puts the crime back in the eyes of the small town and calls out Sherriff Bill Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, for not making any arrests or progress in finding her daughter’s murderer. The town turns against her especially considering the open secret the Sheriff Willoughby is dying of pancreatic cancer.

The billboards are written in a thick black font with orange backgrounds that contrast and stick out among the rolling green and forested background. They read “Raped while dying”, “Still no arrests?”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” The simple action creates an unease and new level of strife for many of the characters in the film. Despite all of this in front of her, Mildred Hayes sticks to her decision to keep her daughter’s murder in the forefront of the town’s eyes.

Most reviews, synopses, and previews call the film a black comedy. But this is no Cohen brothers film, despite all the dark themes driving the plot the lightheartedness doesn’t come from the writer or director making light of the murder or rape or the Sheriff’s pancreatic cancer, it comes from the representation of small towns in the US specifically small southern towns. Dumb cops, off handed dry racism (even from Mildred accusing a police officer of beating African Americans but using a racial slur herself).

If there is something troubling about the film, it is the off-hand slurs many of the characters use. The heroes of the film are at best complicated. The police officer Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, is the most complicated hero of them all. He is never really redeemed, he never turns away from his racist leanings, and spends the majority of the film as an antagonist, spouting racist slurs and arresting and beating up people who are near to Mildred or involved in her billboard purchases. An article by Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post posits the film would be better without Dixon:

“Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, would be a stronger movie if Dixon were either absent from the film or didn’t have a moral awakening”

She also says:

“…the soft-touch treatment of Dixson may be a political weakness of the movie, but it also undermines the film’s theological convictions.”

The Dixon character plays an important role in painting the picture of a small southern town. What Rosenberg misses is that Dixon is an uneducated well-meaning fool. He never has a moral awakening, he is static morally and politically. His character represents a lot of the racism present in the US today, not just the south. And that racism doesn’t quite make people bad people, it makes them not smart enough to realize their folly. People like Dixon don’t like rapists and murderers and would do whatever it was in their power to stop them. That doesn’t change from the beginning of the film to the end. At the same time they are not a model for progressive behavior and for the most part are not great at being reasonable human beings.

Dixon never changes, the circumstances around him do. He is still a drunk racist when he over hears a rapist brag about his crime. He is still a fool and racist when he allies with Mildred.

Dixon’s character is a required piece of the film and played well by Sam Rockwell. Officer Dixon is only the worst example, the two stars of the film Mildred and Sheriff Willoughby also spout terrible slurs, yet they are supposed to be the main characters.

Complex heroes is the name of the game for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. We find that Mildred calls out the Sheriff despite knowing he is dying of cancer putting an undo amount of stress on his life. The Sheriff believes that Officer Dixon deep is good man despite his racist leanings and accusation of beating black men while in custody. Sheriff Willoughby seems like an upright man of the law but he commits suicide, the film never paints it as a cowardly act letting Willoughby explain himself through his various suicide notes. Mildred refuses to pull down billboards despite the turmoil her son is going through seeing them every day and in school as the town turns against Mildred.

These layers of bad and good are what make Three Billboards deserve the praise it is getting the award nominations it is receiving. It’s true that sometimes the plot feels under developed, but once the film is over, Dixon’s history of police brutality, Mildred’s divorce, Mildred’s last words to her daughter, Mildred and Dixon deciding to drive to Idaho to kill a different rapist are all spice on the overriding purpose of movie which are the complex characters, characters that are neither heroes nor villains but fictional characters that feel and act like the ones all around us.