Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ★★★★★

What a difference 3 years can make. I first saw this film at a time in my life when I considered myself something of a centrist, and I thought it was the greatest thing ever. Through my various political changes since, I’ve kept this one in high regard as a piece of art, though I lived in fear of a rewatch spoiling the memory, which up until recently, was something I did a lot. But when I rewatched Joker last year, I came to the realization that it was ok for a piece of art to fall out of favor with me. I still loved Joker, but not nearly as much as I did when it first came out. That wasn’t spoiling the memory really, it was being honest with myself. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a wildly uncomfortable film. It crosses between black comedy and straight drama, and I think it does that pretty well, though some of the more darkly humorous lines fall flat, and it’s really the dramatic elements that pull the weight here. It deals heavily with racism, brutality, abuse, and rape, and it handles all these subject matters in a way that (thankfully) portrays them all as evil, but also depicts profound injustice. Nobody gets their due. Angela’s killer is never found. Dixon is never brought to Justice. The police station didn’t burn down. Sure, there was some change. Dixon began on a path of quasi-redemption, Willoughby was replaced with a sherif who’s at least a little interested in holding people accountable, and the film ends with our two leads vowing to hunt down a different killer/rapist.

This film’s depiction of the police is very interesting. It is pretty clear in painting an (accurately) bad image for the police, and the military later on. The new Sherif fires Dixon, but he never arrests him, despite being an eyewitness to one of the most horrific crimes you could ever see. The sergeant doesn’t like Dixon’s violent racism, but he still partakes in his own non-violent racism. Willoughby is a “good cop”, but he helps Dixon get off for his vague torturing of a black man in custody, and he frequently abuses his power to aid in his ego-stroking interests. The new sherif tells Mayward that not all cops are “the enemy”, but his words ring hallow, since he himself has made no effort to bring anyone to Justice.

At the same time, the film humanizes these cops. Willoughby is treated as a man who most would overall consider good, but it also crucially never let’s him off the hook. Even after his beautifully done death, Mildred and the others still put his billboard back up. He is still a bastard. Dixon’s racism is shown to have stemmed from his cruel mother, whom he still lives with. His arc has been very divisive, and while I really liked it at the time, the bigot’s redemption doesn’t do much for me these days, especially when the bigot is a violent cop (though I’ll give credit for the crux of his “redemption” being a beating). Despite this redemption though, the film never makes him a hero. He is still ultimately not a good man, no matter what Willoughby says. I am still very emotionally invested in his story largely due to Rockwell’s career-defining performance, but I don’t think I buy him as as redeemed as the film wants me to think (though that might also be the point.)

That’s the thing I think this film succeeds above all other similar films at: it sets out to create a world where damn near everything is completely ethically grey. A “hell if I know” stance on morality is very difficult to pull off well, and usually feels like either obnoxious both-sidesing, or really just thinly-veiled conservativism. But this film’s take on it is truly masterful. It only asks the audience to beg what’s right, and it’s clear not to push them any which way, save for the obvious examples of what’s wrong. There are no good guys, no truly likable characters here (save maybe for Mildred’s son, and Dinklage’s character, as well as Mildred’s coworker, and the guy who put up the boards). Ultimately, the only thing this film, which I still think is fantastic, and have it low on my top 100, though I expect it to fall out soon, leaves you sure of is that McDormand and Rockwell really earned those Oscars.

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