A woman seeks justice for her daughter by battling indifference in a small Midwestern town in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), written and directed by Martin McDonagh. This dark dramedy was enormously successful, raking in over $157 million worldwide on a $15 million budget. It goes to show what can happen when first rate actors play well-written characters in a compelling storyline.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving mother whose teenage daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), was brutally raped and murdered. Local Police Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has yet to make an arrest after several months. Frustrated with lack of progress in the investigation, Mildred rents three abandoned billboards and posts: “Raped While Dying”, “Still No Arrests?”, and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”
The billboards quickly divide the town. Chief Willoughby, while sympathetic, is suffering from terminal cancer and feels Mildred is unfairly targeting him. He fails to restrain an alcoholic and abusive police officer, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who retaliates against the billboard owner, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones). Mildred is also under attack from her ex husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), another abusive alcoholic, who blames her for their daughter’s death.
Events quickly spiral out of control, but nothing is resolved in the end. Jason Dixon is the only character who grows or has a change of heart, which is usual because he’s definitely not the protagonist. Mildred remains unnecessarily mean to everyone around her, including James (Peter Dinklage), who is just trying to show her some affection.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was “inspired by true events” when Martin McDonagh drove past several similar billboards along Interstate 10 near Vidor, Texas, just outside Beaumont. In real life, it was a grieving father who put them there after his daughter was allegedly strangled by her husband. He blames local police for dropping the ball and never charging anyone for the crime.
This is a sad commonality in the U.S. In 2015, NPR reported the average national clearance rate for homicide was 64.1 percent, down from 90 percent in 1960. “Clearance” just means someone was arrested for the crime. Last year, Chicago’s murder clearance rate was only 20 percent. At least 200,000 murders have gone unsolved since the 1960s.
So Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri likely stuck a chord with friends and family of homicide victims, equally frustrated and wishing they could act out like Mildred Hayes. McDonagh created Mildred’s character because he wanted a “strong female” role, and he succeeded if by “strong female” he meant “raging psychopath”. During the course of the film, she tortures her dentist, firebombs a police station, and contemplates murdering a man because someone overheard part of a conversation.
Although Mildred Hayes’ revenge is not as extreme as perpetrated by characters in vigilante films like Death Wish (1974), The Brave One (2007), and Law Abiding Citizen (2009), she personifies our primal desire to inflict vengeance against those who wronged us. While, in real life, we have to wait for the justice system to take its course, we often wish we could just “do something,” even if it’s to rage at everyone around us.
I wish Mildred’s character wasn’t so one-dimensional. I wish she came to terms with the fact her daughter’s murder may never be solved, that she found forgiveness, made peace with her ex-husband, or started a new life with James—something that gives us a glimpse of hope for the future. Instead, it was like Martin McDonagh didn’t know how to write an ending, so he just stopped filming. It was a very disappointing and anticlimactic conclusion to an otherwise stellar film.