SPOILER ALERT: I will try to steer clear of major spoilers. In any case, my review will focus heavily on thematic and philosophical aspects of the plot and storyline. Therefore, you will probably want to see the movie for yourself and draw your own conclusions before returning and reading this review.
If one word can sum up my feelings after watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it would be conflicted. This is a film with undeniable ambition. It is a beautifully complex story that focuses on profound themes that speak to our current cultural moment. It is also an unapologetically vulgar film that stares unflinchingly at the darker parts of our society. I can see that all the makings of a truly great film are here, but at the same time I didn't feel that the movie completely tied those various elements together. I found myself wrestling with this movie long into the night after watching it in the theater. When a movie has that kind of effect on you, it's pretty clear that it has been made with excellence.
That is certainly true of Three Billboards. Director Martin McDonagh has crafted an incredibly complex script. There is a lot of anger in it. But when you're faced with the kind of events that show up in the town of Ebbing, Missouri, what other reaction is there except anger?
The inimitable Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a local who we soon find out has experienced a tragedy so brutal it is almost hard to believe. Months before the movie begins, her daughter had been raped and murdered just outside town. The culprit has still not been apprehended. Mildred is now raising her son (played by Lucas Hedges) alone after separating from her abusive husband, Charlie (John Hawkes). She is not pleased with the way the investigation has been handled, so she decides to buy three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (hence the title) and call the police force - specifically police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) - to task.
Also on the police force is a man named Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Early on in the film, he is portrayed as a backwoods racist with little education. At the beginning of the film, it seems that's all he is. But, as the film progresses, we see that there may be more to him than that.
The little town is turned upside down by Mildred's PR stunt. But, she achieves her goal - the police force pursues her daughter's case with renewed vigor. That is, until one of the characters makes a fatal choice. At that point, all hell breaks loose.
As I said before, anger is a key element in this story. Mildred is obviously angry about what has happened to her family. She's angry about the response from the police. She's angry about the attitude of many of the people in town towards her decisions.
Dixon is angry - well, at first we don't really know why he's angry. Some reasons are given later in the film, but, initially, we simply see him as someone filled with hate - especially for minorities.
The one main character who doesn't seem to be all that angry is Chief Willoughby. Sure he talks with the same vulgarity as the others, but he doesn't lash out like they do. Even though, as we soon find out, he has every right to be as angry about life as any of the other characters in the movie.
To me, it is that very idea of "righteous anger" that is at the core of this film. There are things in life that simply cannot be fathomed. Horrible things happen to us and people we know. Unconscionable things. Don't we have a right to be angry about those things? To seek justice even if it means going to great lengths to exact revenge?
What this movie does a clever job of depicting is that, yes, it is our human nature to be angry about the darkest parts of life and to seek revenge for the wrongs against us and those we love. But there's another question altogether that might be even more important...
Does anger ever change anything?
There were two passages from the Bible that floated in and out of my mind while I was watching this movie. I think they will be familiar to most.
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. - Romans 12:19
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. - Matthew 5:43-45
Loving your enemies and putting aside revenge may be easy if we're talking about someone who did a minor wrong against us. But taken to their logical conclusions, those verses are asking us to do something entirely different - to love the unloveable and forgive those who have done major wrongs against us.
Many of the characters in Three Billboards are people that we would undoubtedly label as "bad." Even Mildred, who is put forward as the film's heroine, is someone that we would probably avoid associating with. At various points in the film, she stabs her dentist and commits arson. Maybe we bring ourselves to say that the end of her ultimate goal justifies her means in reaching it. In any case, she uses some extremely unorthodox means of reaching her goal.
Certainly we would label Dixon as a bad man. We see him as incredibly vulgar and downright racist. He even brazenly throws someone out of a third-story window in broad daylight. These are not nice people.
And yet, at multiple points in the film, we see others around them offer forgiveness for these characters' incredible wrongs. One scene that features an offer of orange juice is particularly poignant.
At the end of the day, it seemed to me that this film was offering up a narrative where love and forgiveness are the only ways to exact change in such a harsh, cruel world. Amen to that! I completely agree. While I applaud the theme and the complexity with which it is presented, I'm not quite sure the movie handles the execution of that theme quite perfectly.
My main issue is with the character of Dixon. As I have laid out for you, we are given a pretty clear idea of his character at the beginning of the film. Part-way through, however, he undergoes this massive change. It is brought about by a letter from one of the other characters. That same character also writes a letter to Mildred which has its own profound effect on her. By the end of the film, it seems that Dixon is meant to be viewed as some kind of redemption story. He plays a heroic part in the film's closing sequences, but I didn't feel that it was quite earned based upon we knew about him previously.
This is where I became even more conflicted. We are not characters in a movie, we're humans. We contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman so eloquently put it. Our lives don't have rigid story arcs or character developments. We change and we grow. I am a firm believer that people can change. Having said that, I still didn't feel like Dixon's change in the film was completely earned. This was why I couldn't get to sleep after watching the film that night. I felt extremely conflicted. Then, it dawned on me.
It wasn't that I didn't believe Dixon's character could change, it was that I doubted his reason for change.
We are told that Dixon's anger at the beginning of the film comes out of some difficult experiences in his life from the recent past. He gets this letter where one character says that Dixon is a good man deep down inside and that it will take love, rather than hate for things to change.
Again, I am a firm believer that love and forgiveness are how we enact change. I also believe that anyone can change. But my belief is that such change cannot possibly come from within our human selves without first coming from our interaction with the matchless grace of God. I do not believe that loving the unloveable and forgiving the unforgiveable are natural human reactions. In fact, I think this movie clearly shows that. Our natural human reaction is to become angry and resentful. But this movie seems to say that we as humans can make the choice to love the unloveable and forgive the unforgiveable of our own accord. Especially in the case of Dixon, it's almost like the flip of a switch. Rather, I believe that the capacity to forgive and love in such a way comes only through experiencing the grace and forgiveness of God in our own lives. Then, we can begin to live that out towards others.
A good example of what I'm talking about takes place in the movie No Country for Old Men. Like Three Billboards, that movie attempts to show how we interact with the absolute worst life has to offer. In that film, it comes in the form of the serial killer, Anton Chigurh (played brilliantly by Javier Bardem). By the end of No Country, however, our focus has been taken from the human interactions that have been playing out on screen before us to realm of the supernatural and spiritual through the dreams of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). In the end, I believe that film is saying that - in the face of pure evil - we must throw up our hands and say "I don't understand." We must ask for God's help in navigating a world with so much pain and hardship. I think Three Billboards would have been more powerful if we would have seen these characters appealing to God for help in forgiving when it doesn't seem humanly possible to do so.
I did not sense any type of spiritual redemption in this storyline. Rather, we're led to believe that the influence of one character has a massive change on the other characters' capacity to love and forgive. It's a human decision. Maybe it came from a place of spiritual growth, but we aren't shown that. I wish we were. If this movie showed that it takes interaction with a power (God) outside of ourselves to bring about that type of capacity to forgive, I think it would have been much more powerful and, ultimately, truthful. As it is, it is an incredibly complex and thought-provoking film, but one that I think ultimately falls short of true greatness.
Still, McDonagh and crew are to be commended for a fantastic script and a massive technical achievement. And the cast - particularly McDormand and Rockwell - are deserving of enormous praise for their work in bringing to life this dark but complex narrative. (Though, speaking of the cast, I felt that Hedges was vastly underutilized.) All in all, I think this is clearly one of the best films in a year full of very strong contenders. While it may not be my personal favorite, I cannot deny the intricacies of its screenplay and its considerable overall power as a work of art.
Earlier, I asked two questions. Does anger ever change anything? And, when faced with the worst life has to offer, is there any other reaction besides anger? Those are incredibly complex questions that don't have very clean-cut answers. The power of this film is that it presents these struggles in a raw and very moving fashion. But I do think those questions have answers, and I just wish Three Billboards had done a better job of presenting those answers.
Note on content: This movie deals with adult subject matter, and it is incredibly vulgar. It faces the darker parts of society head-on. As such, it is certainly not going to be appropriate for younger viewers. There is no nudity, but there is some sexual dialogue. And the rape and murder of Mildred's daughter is discussed in brutal fashion. The dialogue in general is very intense - lots of anger and profanity. It also contains some violence and bloody sequences. This is a hard movie. But for adult viewers interested in wrestling with the harder questions in life, this is definitely one of the best films of recent memory.