The trailer for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri suggests a one-woman army played by Frances McDormand against the town trying to single-handedly wreak vengeance on corruption and venality. Vigilantes act outside of the law because the law is inadequate in the face of or a part of the problem. If there was truth in advertising, the trailer would make it more prominent that while Mildred is the lead character, the movie actually has a triptych–like narrative then I would be less disappointed by what it really is: a redemption story. Unfortunately I don’t think that this film’s desire to empathize with its less sympathetic characters and reflect the complexity of human nature is noble, but craven. Spoilers to follow.
In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, black people are used as signals to vindicate a character. Mildred has a black co-worker and a guy who puts up the billboard. Like the cops, she has a uniform appearance that lends her visual credibility and gives her an air of official authority-blue coveralls. When the movie makes her vulnerable, she wears a robe or a pink work shirt with her name on it. In the coveralls, she is in male drag, unsmiling, foul-mouthed, angry and violent. She has stopped caring about other people’s feelings if it means minimizing actual suffering. She has abdicated the gender norms of being a woman. This part of the film is thrilling.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is ambitious and cloaks itself in allusions to black pain to signal that the police department does need fixing while they have not actually done anything wrong on Mildred’s case. The film shifts sympathies and questions whether her concerns are actually unreasonable and unfair to the people that she is criticizing because they are not bad guys. The filmmakers fail to realize that for hard core police advocates, any amount of criticism is verboten. Mildred’s anger is ultimately not about the cops. If you saw the previews, you have probably already seen most of her successful physical confrontations, but not the verbal ones, and those moments are directed at a dentist, which is an act of self-defense, and teenagers.
For a movie about getting justice for a victim of sexual violence, it is counterintuitive that her rampage never extends to her husband, a domestic abuser. The movie sympathizes with him and agrees with his verdict that Mildred is infuriating because there are no indications that they think of him that way since his subsequent relationship is depicted as cliché, not concerning. If I was dating the best guy in the world then walked in on him beating down his ex, I would dump him, not just find it awkward. In another scene, a man basically chides her, perhaps fairly, for not being interested in him, but damn, even if he was the perfect man, I think that you caught her at a bad time. Something is specifically wrong with Mildred. Even if we enjoy her rage, the film is not giving us the traditional, effective vigilante story and purposely puts her in situations to make her problematic.
Like the majority of Americans, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri needs to believe that everyone is redeemable, especially the worst cop on the payroll, takes great pains to humanize and redeem him in a way that sadly does not reflect reality. It is a fictional world where people like Betty Shelby actually are tortured inside over what she did, and if we understood the origins of her pain, she would suddenly repent for her actions, not suffer any legal consequences and become the cop that she was always meant to be, but in the real world, she is unbothered and has no blemish on her record. The film’s emblematic moment is when a son tenderly touches his awful mom’s head. The movie treasures the worst people and keeps the bar way low, which explains why one would cast one of Hollywood’s most charismatic actors in the role. The real momentum of the movie is this character’s transformation.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri devotes at most two thirds of the film to the police chief played by Woody Harrelson and an officer played by Sam Rockwell. The movie depicts a police force that is ineffectual, uses excessive force, intimidates its citizens and is corrupt, racist and homophobic then laughs it off, forgives it or excuses it. On Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, I believe that Olivia Benson once favorably called her fellow police officers a gang so I find it interesting that Mildred’s gang speech is directed at the Catholic Church, not the police, and is never countered by another scene to be reframed as unfair as it is when she directs her rage at the cops. It is easier to criticize the church than the police. The movie focuses on the cops’ physical and emotional pain to get the audience to empathize with them and wants Mildred to pull back. This devotion to their actual, current pain supplants past pain, even if that past pain is more brutal and final. It is literally the cheapest trick in the book since someone killed John Wick’s puppy. Emotionally manipulative much?
Our faith in the police force is supposed to be restored in a brilliant sight gag after a cop brutalizes a citizen with, once again, the mere presence of a black person. Not just any black person, but a black man from The Wire, America’s favorite HBO show, which I also loved. Clearly Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri does not exist in the same world as Boyz n The Hood where the presence of a black cop is no guarantee that abuse will not continue. The problem is not just racism. It is unchecked authority. Indeed even in this film, while the abuse stops, Mildred’s case lies untouched on someone’s desk.
None of this erases the fact that the town is running on a short fuse over an undercurrent of violence and cruelty eager to erupt, and there are zero legal consequences, which we want because we like Mildred, but we should also fear because an authority figure threw someone out of a window. Sure the violence suddenly evaporates with the right distraction, but in a film that demands justice, it requires none when it is readily available, but apparently unwilling to act because the culprit is really sorry and shows it in actions that bear no relationship to his crimes, but reflects a sudden investment in someone else’s faith in him. The victim forgives him. Even our favorite two black Greek chorus characters discard their open disdain of him for verbal intervention on his behalf. Even his most noble, self-sacrificial act is really about him even if it benefits someone else. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri thinks all should be forgiven, and it should be, but that is not necessarily justice or a signal that he changed, just redirected his violence and attitude.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri offers cheap grace, dilutes and undermines a woman’s vengeance and shifts sympathies with cliché distractions. Sci fi should not be the only place that we see unbridled, heroic and effective female anger.
Sarah G. Vincent is an infovore who is originally from NYC and has lived in Massachusetts since 1993. She received an A.B., cum laude, in History and Film Studies from Harvard University in 1997 and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where she was also an editor and arts reporter at the Crimson/FM and worked at the Harvard Film Archives. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she published “The Cultural Context of the Shopping Mall: Tension Between The Patron’s Right of Access and the Owner’s Right to Exclude.” She is in a committed, exclusive spiritual relationship with the Triune God and for more information, directs readers to look at the Apostle’s Creed.