BILLBOARDS are a symbol of American commercialism, prosperity and corruption.
They can signal opportunity or exploitation, depending on your vantage point – the American Dream (or the American Greed) encapsulated in eye-catching imagery and snappy taglines.
At the start of Martin McDonagh’s film Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred Hayes (played by the magnificent Frances McDormand) drives past three worn-down neglected billboards. As described in the script, they ‘sit like tombstones on a dusty road’ – a reference to the death of Mildred’s daughter in this same spot and (perhaps) to a deeper malignance within American society. In this state, these wasted billboards stand as the symbol of a decayed and tainted American Dream.
Mildred, a resilient and abrasive figure, goes on to claim the billboards, subverting their commercial purpose for a personal fight that also speaks to wider American societal issues.
Mildred’s mission reverberates around the town. It upsets people like the fat dentist and priest who prefer to keep the order of things. It embarrasses her son who would rather keep his head down while enraging members of the local police-force who do not like their credibility challenged. And for the same reasons it strikes a chord with the town’s African-Americans who feel wronged by the said police-force.
Through this lens, the billboards become a means to shine a light back – not just at individuals like Chief Willoughby (an excellent performance from Woody Harrelson), but powerful American institutions (the police).
The provocative and confrontational language Mildred plasters on the billboards (in an earlier draft of the script they go up on the 4th of July and in the film Easter Sunday – a resurrection reference) speaks to a lack of trust in American authority that is rooted in the nation’s founding. A mistrust that has been simmering since Watergate and has only intensified over the eight years the script for Three Billboard was floating around – especially in relation to racial tensions.
THE racial underpinnings of Three Billboards are made clear from the hostile interaction between Jerome (Darrell Britt-Gibson) and officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) in the early stages of the film. The script describes a ‘vicious edge’ between the two, one that continues to simmer away for much of the story.
Jerome and Denise (Amanda Warren) – who is harshly imprisoned by Dixon later in the film – make their disdain for the police and their prejudices clear. They are victims – rightfully resentful of bigoted local authorities and a local community that largely enables such wrongdoings.
When Abercrombie (Clarke Peters) arrives at the police station and ousts Dixon there is a sense that the scales of power might begin to balance. Even still, Jerome proves his humility as a human towards the end of the film when he helps stops Dixon’s brutal beating in the bar from going any further.
McDonagh’s original script includes more scenes of racial tension that did not make it to the big-screen, including a few involving Willoughby. McDonagh paints a picture of an off-kilter, fractured community. One in which there is still cruel racial divisions. The references to a burning American flag echoes the sentiments seen recently in culture through Colin Kaepernick and others – the division is clear and there is work still to be done.
MUCH of the racial tension in Three Billboards centres around officer Dixon.
Infantile and reckless, he would rather flick through comic books than the Hayes’ case file that lies on his desk. His home life offers insight as to why. The 30-something officer is still under the wing of his racist mother having returned home following the passing of his father. Yet as the film progresses he threatens to go from unruly racist to near-hero.
McDonagh’s Dixon is typical of the moral ambivalence that permeates through Three Billboards. It is foggy and complicated enough to provoke criticism from those who see Dixon’s attempts at redemption as an enabling of his racism.
I prefer to see it as an effort, inspired by Willoughby’s suicide note, to let go of the hatred that led him to beat up Red and (most likely) torture an African-American prisoner.
Dixon’s efforts by no means hide his stupidity or vanish his wrongdoings. Rather they show what can be achieved when vitriol is vanquished and energy is channelled into doing good. Dixon’s dilemma at the end of the film is a question. Can he truly change or will he resort to vigilante action?
VIOLENT action is common place in Three Billboards and generally used as a cathartic tool. People are flung from office windows, dentists are drilled in the thumb while school kids are kicked – all in the name of pride and other painful emotions.
Even still, this violence does not bring closure – nor does it bring justice. The film’s teetering ending is a clear indicator of that.
JUST like African-Americans, women are clear victims in Three Billboards. The film is premised on the rape and murder of a young woman. A crime that goes unsolved and may have been forgotten if not for Mildred’s attention-grabbing actions.
Mildred’s pain does not end with her daughter. There are clear references to her own past as a victim of domestic abuse. Her ex-husband, who pins her up against a wall in one scene, is an ex-policeman – another reason Mildred harbours resentment towards authority.
IN the face of adversity and grief, Mildred is a hurricane of agency ripping through Ebbing in search of action and justice.
She possesses a steely strength paired with a desperation to provoke action even at the expense of her own reputation.
It makes for a formidable, disrupting and likeable combination – even if inner-frustration (a different kind to Dixon’s) leads her to take violent, lawful action.
THREE Billboards opens with the piercingly affecting song Tis the Last Summer of Rose. Based on a poem by Thomas Moore and sung by Renee Fleming, this song uses nature as a metaphor to discuss loss and loneliness.
It also lays an interesting naturalistic foundation to the film, one that is soon reinforced by Mildred’s rescuing of an overturned beetle in Red’s office.
Mildred’s interaction with the insect is a show of genuine empathy. A moment that indicates from the start that she is at heart a caring person and willing to help those in need. It also acts as a metaphor for her own position as someone who has been cruelly knocked over by life.
Nature draws out the vulnerable side of Mildred again later on as she speaks to a deer fawn while potting plants underneath the billboards.
She flirts with the idea that the deer might be her daughter reincarnated before she breaks down in tears. It is a tender scene, beautifully acted by McDormand, that reveals the human quest for solace and meaning.
Later on, the script describes the fawn and its mother returning to the billboards to eat Mildred’s flowers – a confirmation of Mildred’s eventual cynicism and a reflection of nature’s harsh realities.
Like the racial tension scenes, nature plays a prominent role in the script of Three Billboards – including a overly symbolic scene between Willoughby, Dixon, a squirrel and an owl.
McDonagh’s appears to use nature as a blunt metaphor for life’s harsh ways. That is until the final line of the script offers an ambivalent flicker of hope as a deer watches Mildred and Dixon drive by.
Three Billboards is a wonderful piece of small-scale American cinema. One that strikes classic Coen Brothers’ chords of dark humour, zany small-town characters, a seesawing between realism and surrealism and a few unexpected mysteries chucked in for good measure.
A film that I – and for sure many others – will cherish and reflect upon for some time.