Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

[3.1/5] Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a fairy tale. It may not seem that way. Most fairytales don’t center on racist cops, rampant physical violence, and grisly crimes. But it’s a story of entrenched problems, that are effectively solved by fiat via the movie’s fairy godmother, and it renders all the good work the film does up to that point, and the commendable efforts it makes afterward, unsatisfying and unearned.

It tells the story of Mildred, a woman who puts up the eponymous three billboards asking why the local police have not solved her daughter’s murder in confrontational tones, Willoughby, the terminally ill sheriff who’s called out in them, and Dixon, the bigoted, asshole cop in his employ who’s terrorized any number of citizens while abusing his authority.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh uses that premise and those figures to tell a story about trauma, anger, powerlessness, policing, guilt, and our increasingly fractured definition of community. True to his past work, he does so in a way that is often unflinching, but also apt to find the dark comedy in terrible-yet-absurd events. There is a messiness to the film, one that feels frank, if colorful, in its depiction about the rougher-edged parts of small town life and the problems therein, where who and what are good and bad are not such simple questions.

That’s what makes me willing to tolerate the ways in which this isn’t necessarily the right moment for a film like Three Billboards, apt to forgive openly antagonistic members of law enforcement and willing to lionize or at least excuse the authority figures who allow them to operate. There’s a realness to much of what the film depicts that buys McDonagh some leeway before his film devolves in Heartland Cop Cinderella.

We live in a world where there are, at a minimum, bad apples likes Dixon. We live in a world where there are head honchos like Willoughby who tolerate them in the name of getting the job done and putting warm bodies on the streets. We live in a world where there are women like Mildred, who face domestic abuse and experience horrible events and have little recourse and few places to turn.

The world of The Billboards is outsized, in the way most of McDonagh’s work is, but what it’s heightening is reality, alongside the messy, unpleasant truths of how people and institutions interact in the real world that can be as sad, repugnant, or darkly comic as they are quotidian. McDonagh gets away with crossing lines for much of the picture because it reflects the real life way that lines are crossed everyday in places like Ebbing, Missouri and in far more gentrified environs.

That’s all well and good until the film turns into a fantasy. Admittedly, few fantasies start with a self-euthanization, but Willoughby’s loving letter to his wife, and posthumous encouragements for Mildred and Dixon turn both their lives around, give each a form of closure and catharsis from the horrors the film countenance, and closes with the sort of mutual understanding and finding of common ground that doesn’t work if you try to get there mainly via voiceover and soft music and other cinematic tricks.
The impact of those letter feels like a cheat. Willoughby practically becomes a god, orchestrating events from beyond the grave and changing people’s hearts almost in an instant. His words are full of purple prose of the “can’t we all just get along” variety, with a few choice local expressions, and not only help bring Mildred some comfort, but nigh-magically turn Dixon into a better man.

Suddenly Dixon, a man who, as far as we’ve seen, has done nothing but abuse his position and take out his wavering wants on anyone in his way, is a good guy who’s willing to put himself on the line to save a woman he would practically spit on before. Suddenly he’s determined enough to go to his new sheriff with DNA to try ID the perp who killed her daughter. Suddenly he’s dedicated enough to the ideas of justice to go on a road trip with her to take out the bad guy who hurt someone, even if he didn’t hurt her child.

Good stories are about change and growth. They’re about people having realizations and changing their behavior, about the way events can shape us and change who they are. But Rockwell’s character never really goes through that. He just reads a letter and wakes up a different person. Yes, he loses his job, but the movie never really presents that as the source of his change of heart. Instead, there’s the wise, old, tragically doomed authority figure to posthumously push him in the right direction, a push that apparently gives Rockwell’s character an overnight transformation into a crusader for justice who’s nigh-instantly remorseful for all the bad deeds he’s committed, ready to make up for them.

It stinks because the performances are superb. Frances McDormand plays Mildred with all the quiet fury and hollowed-out sadness that befits a parent who's lost their child and never found justice. Sam Rockwell shows Dixon’s most odious, reprehensible qualities when he’s a cop on his worst behavior, but finds the vulnerability and essential impotence in the character once he’s been defrocked that almost manages to make that rushed transition work. Woody Harrelson plays the same rough-edged Southerner with a heart of gold he’s performed as plenty in recent years (and between his turn of True Detective and appearances from Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage, The Wire’s Clarke Peters, and Deadwood’s John Hawkes, clearly McDonagh or his casting director has been watching HBO), but the supporting cast is strong and make good impressions in brief amounts of time.

But all that good work is in service of a story that operates in a fantasyland at the same time it’s trying to evoke truth. I’m as apt to applaud films for showing that people contain multitudes as anyone. I’m not averse to showing that grieving mothers can have sharp elbows or that racist cops can have souls.

The problem is that if you want to show them changing for the better, reaching breakthroughs and coming together from opposite sides of the same tragedy, you have to do the work to get the characters and the audience there. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is chock full of great performances, dark humor, and withering truths, but it throws them all away when it anchors the film on a series of mystically powerful letters from a wizened, practically deified man, whose words fix everything, or at least enough, in what can only feel like a shortcut through the fraught territory McDonagh had the initial courage to set foot in.