“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”: Writing on the wall

Mildred Hayes’ daughter Angela has been raped and killed. Frustrated by seven months of ineffective police investigation, Mildred has three huge roadside billboards erected: “Raped While Dying.” “And Still No Arrests?” “How Come Chief Willoughby?”

The Police Chief pleads for patience: “I’d rather not tell anyone, but I’m dying of pancreatic cancer.” Mildred, played tougher than nails by Frances McDormand, won’t take dying for an excuse. She slams back his response telling Woody Harrelson’s otherwise ingratiating Chief that the billboards will encourage him to do his job. Besides, Mildred grimly observes, “the whole town knows you’re dying.”

Mildred towers over the apex of Ebbing much as Cassandra stood at the center of Troy. Mourning does not become Mildred. Some felt she was mad, others viciously bitter. No one liked her. But all knew she told unpleasant truths they would rather condemn than learn from.

Around her an ethereal ensemble of character actors give acute, fevered voice to writer-director Martin McDonagh’s darkly humorous morality tale of vengeance, love, anger, retribution, racism, betrayal and forgiveness. Woody Harrelson’s chief is noble, tender and tragic. Sam Rockwell’s Deputy Dixon is nothing short of reprehensibly brilliant, holding up the glass of his severely flawed character to reveal how the cataracts of personal development cloud his vision, warping his actions.

John Hawkes, Mildred’s estranged, wife-beating husband, and his nineteen-year-old malapropism-prone mistress ricochet in and out of her life like a sputtering spent satellite ready to crash to earth inflicting as much damage as possible. On the other hand, her son Lucas Hedges lends as much support as can a coming-of-age teenager publicly embarrassed by his mother’s unflinching public vengefulness. Cameos by veterans Peter Dinklage and Clarke Peters are deft and timely.

As Mildred pursues answers, the plot twists over, around and through the small town of Ebbing. McDonagh’s direction pushes us briskly around corners we didn’t suspect were there. Somehow he achieves the precarious triumph of heartfelt humor rather than pushing his film over the top for easy solutions.

McDonagh’s writing is spare, direct and colorful. The veteran character actors that populate this town use the tools they are given for quick sketches that suggest depth and mercifully illuminate without trying to conclusively answer the unfathomable metaphysical issues that are raised when ordinary people attempt to confront injustice.

Will Mildred take down the billboards or be crucified on them? Will we find out who the murderer-rapist is? By its end, the film may or may not answer! But more importantly Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri leaves us with the question of how we live together and what actions love and the pursuit of truth justify.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.