A lone woman trapped out in redneck country.
Here’s an uncomfortable question to ask: in the cases of rape and sexual assault, who suffers more? The victims, or their families? We often focus so much attention on the victims that go through these unforgivable tragedies, as we rightfully should. But do we ever think as much about the father who raised her? The mother who gave birth to her? The brother that grew up with her? What regrets are they experiencing? What battles are they facing outside of the courthouses and police stations? Not to mention that’s for the cases where the victims survived. What about those who didn’t?
I know that’s probably as uncomfortable reading for you as it is typing for me, but it needs to be said. Silence on these issues marginalizes these victims to the point of forgetting them, and the one thing that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri definitely isn’t is silent. Like its loudmouthed protagonist, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is fearless, outspoken, confrontational, aggressive, and uncompromising in its truth. It needs to be seen solely on the basis of understanding what a sixth of American families are going through right now.
In Three Billboards, one of those families belongs to Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), and her family is a broken one to say the least. Her son is estranged from her, while her abusive husband divorced her so he could be with some girl that is 30 years younger than him. Her daughter is also no longer with them, and without getting into the grisly details, she was sexually assaulted and killed over a year ago.
Frustrated by the local police’s lack of progress in the investigation, Mildred takes her own initiative and rents out three billboards saying “RAPED WHILE DYING. ONE YEAR, NO ARRESTS. HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” Needless to say, Police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his loyal protégé Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) are a little less than amused at her antics. This spurs them and the town to protest her signage displays, pitting one lone woman against an entire town of rednecks.
While watching the film, I was reminded of a small town in Athens, Texas where my family occasionally travels out to on a piece of property that we own. You will notice that most of the people there are more, shall we say, blunt than city folks are. They don’t beat around the bush. They speak their mind, and rarely do they stray from coarse, unfiltered honesty. Profanity is a second language to them. Drinking, chewing tobacco, and spitting to the side of the road is common practice. And calling someone a bastard is a sign of affection.
I paint this picture to show you that writer-director Martin McDonagh was inspired by these same experiences while writing Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and he uses these same people as a current to demonstrate serious institutionalized problems that go on within our justice system. Three Billboards hits on multiple issues all at once. Police brutality. Institutionalized racism. Homophobia. Free speech. And, of course, rape culture. You would think that the film would be overloaded talking about all of these topics at once, and would feel less like a story and more like a university studies lecture.
Not so. The conversations and the concerns these characters share feel genuine and believable, as if they are real people talking to each other and not just actors reciting a screenplay for the camera. I think this is because McDonagh centralizes the conversations around one key topic: the three billboards. McDonagh once saw similar billboards over 15 years ago while traveling in between Georgia and Alabama. Taking that image in his mind and backtracking the narrative, he creates a dialogue about the nature of peaceful protesting, and whether those protests should be tolerated regardless of the communities’ reaction to them.
I was reminded of another recent protest while watching Three Billboards: the NFL kneeling controversy. In both cases, the issues are the same: X problem is going on within local law enforcement, so I’m going to do Y until the issue is addressed. Yet, in both of these cases, the protestor is the one that is being blamed for the issues, not the entity that person is protesting. Here’s a litmus test for you: are you more offended by a billboard calling out your best friend by name, or are you more offended by the dead teenager that was killed under his watch?
In that, McDonagh forms an important conversation that needs to be had: should the victims of these circumstances be silent in their suffering, or should their additional scrutiny be even more of a reason to speak out? Political commentators note all the time that in some sexual assault cases, victims were “asking for it” with what they were wearing or how they were acting. I’m pretty sure Mildred’s daughter Angela wasn’t asking to be killed. Just an educated guess on my part.
But the movie isn’t all doom-and-gloom with dread and weariness. There are brief moments of humanity and humor that shines through the bleak shades of the film, and most of that is thanks to Frances McDormand. She’s such a spitfire of a woman in this movie, a firecracker full of attitude that refuses to take any more B.S. that she doesn’t deserve. I’m telling you, this woman has been through the ringer. She’s faced the abuse and abandonment of her ex-husband, the frustration and anger of her son, and the violation and murder of her daughter. I don’t blame her one bit for being a little off the cuff, and that’s exactly what she is here: a loose cannon ready to throw hands with anyone who approaches her with hostility. She makes you outwardly laugh in moments where she spits deep-cutting jabs, while at other times your jaw drops saying out loud to yourself “I can’t believe she just did that.”
And yet, her character isn’t devoid of sympathy or understanding. She’s actually a very kind-hearted and considerate human being, who very understandably has a hard shell for the people who have abused her kindness in the past. She is not afraid to get confrontational, and she is especially not afraid to get physical. In one moment of the picture, she makes fun of a midget for wanting to sleep with her. In another, she kicks a teenager in the groin and punches another one in her genitals. Yet, in more surprising moments, she expresses genuine care and concern for people she was mocking mere moments ago, sympathetic to their pain in moments where they weren’t sympathetic towards hers.
In fact, describing Mildred Hayes best describes the rest of the movie: a thick skin with a soft heart.
I find no faults in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, only actions and conversations that will make you uncomfortable at watching. They’re supposed to. There are people like Mildred and Angela Hayes all over the world today facing the same anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment, and lack of closure from what they’ve experienced. All they’re left with is the pain, and they’re given nothing to compensate for it. McDonagh had two choices in portraying that loss: either show it in its rawest, most honest form, or don’t show it at all. McDonagh chose the former. If you don’t want to experience that for yourself, that’s totally fair. You can always leave the movie theater. Mildred Hayes can’t leave her life.