I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri more than a month ago and I’m still processing. In case you missed this in the big print up top, I’m not avoiding spoilers at all. I specifically plan to discuss the ending. If you want to see the movie, but haven’t yet, this is your chance to stop reading.
Some meta observations first. I have lived nearly my entire life in Missouri. Before I saw the movie, I read a couple of reviews that focused heavily on how things are “in the south.” Cough, cough. I suppose the southern part of the state, bordering on Arkansas and Tennessee, is edging toward being in the south. But if you look at a map or talk to Missouri natives, you will discover that we are, by and large, mid-westerners, in geography and self-identity.
I also read a review by a New Yorker who went on at some length about why there had to be some specific allegory or needed justification for setting a movie in Missouri. What does it mean that it’s set in Missouri? he wondered. Oh hey, maybe it means that Missouri is a place where people live and have stories that involve something other than longing to be in New York. Maybe coastal cities aren’t the default or the norm. Maybe Missouri is as valid a place to set a story as anywhere else. Maybe that’s what it means. Also, to the same critic who thought it seemed artificial for Missourians to quote from literature, I can attest that some of us have read a book or two.
Though not filmed in Missouri, I felt the movie captured the look and feel of the Ozarks area fairly well. I was relieved that none of the actors used a fake, over-the-top drawl. I will nitpick with a line of dialogue when one character, who is supposed to be a Missouri native, says “here in the south.” I guess that might be where the reviewers got the idea.
I found it interesting how the movie is set in the state that is the home of Hallmark Cards, but the story is the antithesis of a typical Hallmark movie. We start with the knowledge that Frances McDormand’s character, Mildred Pierce, is awash in grief-fueled rage over the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter. Though we see a few soft, gentle moments, by the end of the movie she’s still struggling over what to do with the feelings that threaten to pull her under and drown her. She doesn’t come to a full and peaceful resolution of any kind. As a mother, I got the feeling she was never going to stop trying to find something — anything — she could do that would feel like a fierce care-taking of the daughter she could no longer truly help.
This is what made her a real and true and large character, a character with shoulders broad enough to carry such a heavy story. The viewer comes into the story in Mildred’s point of view. It’s easy to identify with her, even as her behavior becomes more and more extreme and violent. Because the first thing we see is the depth of her pain and the depth of her love.
Chief of police William Willoughby is the target of Mildred’s billboard messages. He’s portrayed in a largely sympathetic manner, as someone who looks deep and sees nuance. There’s a genuine warmth and humanity to him. It’s obvious he’s pained by the failure to catch the murderer of Mildred’s daughter. I’ve seen a lot written about him as the most unambiguously good character in the movie. BUT. Not to me. I’ve been so surprised by something that goes unmentioned over and over again that I’m starting to wonder if I imagined it. I don’t think I did.
There’s a scene with a conversation between Mildred and Willoughby, after she tussles with the dentist, where it’s revealed her ex-husband had formerly been a member of the local police force, presumably under Willoughby’s supervision. And her husband beat her. And Willoughby did not much about it, “reasonably” explaining it was a he said/she said situation, with no proof of anything. Mildred’s billboards and the pain and the grudge against the police chief go back beyond his failure to solve her daughter’s murder. There are layers here, and I’m consistently befuddled that nobody seems to mention this. If Mildred believes he didn’t try hard enough, she has some justification, considering the two of them have a history where he’s failed to help her before. On the other hand, the implication is there that Willoughby wants to make this up to her, too.
Meanwhile there’s Officer Dixon, and the first things we know about him are violent actions he’s taken, or at least everyone believes so. Everyone talks about him inflicting violence on a black citizen. However, he denies it. It’s easy to dislike him immediately. As the movie progresses, we see he does have a penchant for lashing out. But we see all of that before we know much about him as a person. Throughout the story, other characters tease him about being a mama’s boy. It’s not until much later we learn he’s hurting over the loss of his father and has made sacrifices to take care of a dependent mother.
Mildred and Dixon face off throughout the movie, but in the end, when they drive off together as allies on the same quest of vengeance, they don’t seem so different from each other. Two sides of the same coin, more like. I felt as if the film’s writer, Martin McDonagh, created a character arc for me, as a viewer. Both Mildred and Dixon engage in behavior that is just plain wrong. I questioned why I cheered, or at least sympathized with Mildred’s actions, while despising Dixon for his. I believe it was the whole context thing. With Mildred we see the suffering first, but with Dixon not much other than how he has hurt other people. The context of his life fills in later.
If there’s anything I identified as a central message of this movie, it’s this: hurt people hurt people. But not always. When a man who was savagely attacked by Dixon has a chance for revenge, he shows mercy instead. If there’s a glimmer of hope this dark movie offers us, it’s this: hurt people can sometimes rise above hurting other people.