How Come, Chief Willoughby?: A Review of ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

By The Collectress

The Oscars are just a few weeks away, and here we go with our yearly assessments of the Best Picture nominations. When The Collective team were figuring out the assignments for films, I really had no idea what “Three Billboards was about” so I kinda turned to the Mutineer, shrugged and said, “yeah, let’s go watch it and then we can figure out who will write about it.”

I had no clue that this film would completely change the way I view quirky independent films. On its surface, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri should be a quirky small-town dramedy that packs an emotional punch to the gut, and while it is small-town, it is not quirky, but raw, and it really packs a wallop. 

The film follows Mildred (Frances McDormand), a single mother in small-town Missouri, who grieves the loss of her murdered teenage daughter (who appears in flashbacks, played by Supernatural‘s Kathryn Newton). No arrests have been made, and the investigation has gone stagnant. Frustrated, Mildred rents three billboards (pictured above) to try to get the police active in her daughter’s case. Three Billboards is not a story about solving a crime, however, and it is not a story about Mildred learning to move on. Rather, it is a nuanced look at some truly messed up human beings who want redemption and closure but either cannot or do not achieve it.

It is the unforgiving examination of human nature that sets Three Billboards apart from other films released this year. Mildred is our protagonist, and we feel her grief, but she is calloused and knees teenagers in the groin. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a good man who doesn’t follow through on his good intentions. Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a racist bigot who eventually realizes that he may have the capability of atoning for his wrongs.

Dixon is perhaps the biggest point of contention for the film amongst viewers. He is racist; he is bigoted; he abuses power by violently asserting his authority over others, most notably minorities and women. In short: Dixon represents the part of America’s law enforcement that we wish we didn’t have, and his roots in the small town where everyone is known echoes the white privilege that is rooted into aspects of America’s criminal justice system. And yet, Dixon’s extremely flawed and abhorrent character creates the most compelling narratives of the film. We desperately want Dixon to redeem himself, because, perhaps, that means that America can be redeemed.

Mildred, also, seeks redemption for some of the things she said to her daughter, right before she was murdered. Logically, Mildred knows that solving the murder cannot bring her daughter back, but it becomes clear that bringing her daughter’s murderer to justice has become a symbol of absolution to her. She also seeks retribution on the police department for not solving her daughter’s case and for seemingly letting it turn cold. Mildred is tough, like leather, and though she bends she does not break.

The film’s scenery is an homage to Mildred’s personality: solitary, quiet, and resilient. The glaringly red billboards over such a peaceful setting scream in rage, in frustration, and in suffering. They are incongruous with their surroundings, and so to is the film’s ending. There is no clearcut resolution, no happily resolved redemption arc. Rather, the ending is raw and confusing and muddled, just like Mildred, and just like Dixon. And, perhaps, just like America.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. 

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