“Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri” and One Emotional Ride

by Herbert H. Stein

 

We see a man and woman driving along a quiet country road. She, the older of the two,
is driving and she starts the conversation.
“Hey, Dixon?”
“Yeah?”
“I need to tell you something.”
There is a pause, then she continues.
“It was me who burned down the police station.”
“Well, who the hell else would it have been?”
They drive some more and she speaks again.
“Dixon?”
“Yep?”
“You sure about this?”
“About killing this guy?”
He waits a few moments and continues,
“Not really. You?”
“Not really.”
They drive some more and she says, “I guess we can decide along the way.”
He nods, she smiles, they keep driving …

And then the screen goes black and we see the closing credits.

In that moment in which I realized I was no longer living vicariously in the world of the
film, as I came back to my own world, sitting in a now dark movie theater, I had the thought that I had seen a very unusual film, perhaps unique.

I had been watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing,Missouri, and as I gathered
my thoughts I really wasn’t sure what it was about the film that was so unusual, perhaps unique.

I may not have been alone. My impression is that Three Billboards took the movie world by surprise. On the surface, it was an odd little comedy or drama, which isn’t clear. It wasn’t a great love story, not a love story at all. It was more of a hate story. There wasn’t a clear social message or rousing call to arms about the issues of our times, nor a moving biopic, absorbing fantasy or family saga. It was a story about a series of odd events, that seemed to tumble out from one another.

There wasn’t a social message, yet it seemed to touch on social and political issues at every turn. It wasn’t exactly about “black lives matter,” but we are made aware throughout of the tension between the town’s all white police force and the minority community. We hear repeated references to the torture of a black prisoner by Police Officer Jason Dixon. We see the same Dixon making hostile remarks about “homosexuals” and joking about the town “midget” in front of the man. There is an almost superfluous comment on child sexual abuse by priests. The subject of terminal illness and suicide is central to the story and yet never highlighted or discussed.

From the outset, it is about male on female violence. The eponymous billboards are rented by a  single mother, Mildred Hayes, angry over the failure of the police to make any progress in apprehending whoever raped and murdered her daughter. We later will learn that her ex-husband, who had been a policeman, had beaten her. We see him start to choke her in a later scene. The billboards and all that follows rings out with the theme of an individual fighting authority and the community. Mildred is portrayed as feisty and brave. And yet even that does not fully capture what the film is about.

It is not a family saga, but the relationship between parents and children is prominently

displayed in three examples. In a telling flashback, we see Mildred interacting with her adolescent daughter and son in an angry, tense environment. Conversely, Jason Dixon seems to be in complete harmony with his elderly “Mama”; but, it is a harmony based on rage and hatred directed at others. Finally, we will see Police Chief Willoughby, the immediate object of the rage on the billboards, in a particularly warm and loving relationship with his two little girls and his wife.

At this point, those of you who have not seen the film may be confused and thinking

that the film has no central theme and perhaps no coherence as it touches on all of these important subjects. Is it simply an absorbing story with no beginning and no end? There is a beginning, of course. Mildred Hayes sees three empty billboards beside a little used road near her home and gets an idea. She goes to the advertising company in town, an office run by a young man, Red Welby, and rents out the billboards to convey an unusual message. The billboards read, in succession as you ride out of town: “Raped While Dying”/“And Still No Arrests/ “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”But, of course, it is a beginning that has its own past. Mildred’s daughter Angela’s body was found after she had been raped and murdered and her body burned.

Three Billboards is ultimately about trauma. At the center of the story is a pounding repetitive theme of violence, pain, grief, rage and more violence. Late in the film it is captured in a simple aphorism spoken by an innocent young woman who had read it on a bookmark: “Anger begets greater anger.”

That cycle begins with the rape/murder that propels Mildred to rent the empty billboards to express her rage at Chief Willoughby and the Ebbing police force. The billboards, in turn, raise a wave of sympathy for Bill Willoughby which leads to further rage and violence directed at both Mildred and Red Welby. Mildred fights off an attack from a dental chair as the town’s “fat dentist” menaces her with his drill, saying, “There’s a lotta good friends of Bill Willoughby in this town, Mrs Hayes, who don’t take kindly to… ”  just before Mildred grabs the hand that wields the drill and directs it into his finger nail. Red is attacked by Officer Dixon in the street until Chief Willoughby intervenes. And so it goes.

To get some understanding of my unusual reaction to the film (or should I say my reaction to the film as being so unusual), I had to go beyond this cast of characters. I had to focus on another important “character” in the film, Me, the Viewer. Like many good films, Three Billboards evoked intense emotional reactions in me. What made it different from most, if not all those other films, was the nature and sequence of those reactions.

At the outset, we think we are watching a film about a feisty woman taking on the town bully. That’s reinforced when we see Chief Willoughby and his desk sergeant, Cedric, walking across the street to barge into Red Welby’s office demanding an explanation for the billboards. Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, is large and imposing. While Cedric begins to question Red, Willoughby props his booted feet on Red’s desk, eyeing him with a menacing authority. We further learn that Officer Dixon has been kept on by Willoughby after being accused of torturing a black man in the prison and we see black people warily eyeing the police. This is familiar emotional territory, and it is reinforced as we proceed. 

But there is a subtle shift beginning with Willoughby’s visit to Mildred Hayes’s home to plead his case. She is wary when he comes to the door and does not invite him inside. Instead they speak outside, she sitting on a swing and he standing beside her. He does not come across here as threatening. He appeals to her reason.

Willoughby: I ‘d do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don’t match no-one who’s ever been arrested and when the DNA don’t match any other crime nation-wide, and when there wasn’t a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well, now there ain’t too much more that we can do, except …

She interrupts, telling him to pull blood from every man and boy over the age of 8 in the town. He tells her there are civil rights laws against that, and he might not be from the town. She tells him to “pull blood from every man in the country.”  It goes on in that vein, with him telling her finally that he doesn’t think the billboards are fair. She accuses him of wasting time whining while more girls may be raped and murdered.

Finally, he says to her, “There’s something else, Mildred. I got cancer. I’m dying.”

She answers, “I know it, most everybody in town knows it.”

“You know it and you still put those billboards up?”

“Well they wouldn’t be as effective after you croak, right?

After that, we do see Willoughby looking over the files on the Angela Hayes murder.

A second shift comes when he interrogates her in the police station after the dentist has filed charges against her for stabbing him with his drill. He is still confident, questioning her about it. She is still defiant, denying that she’d even been to the dentist’s office, her speech still affected by Novocain the dentist had injected into her gum.

Then something happens. As he is speaking to her he coughs, blood splattering out onto her face. He is shocked, becomes apologetic. She looks genuinely concerned and goes to call someone. As he is being placed in the ambulance he orders Dixon to release Mildred.

We begin to get more depth about the incident that started all of this, and although our overall attitude is probably still in line, there are some shifts in our perceptions and our emotions. Here is another sequence.

We see Mildred and her son, Robbie driving by the billboards and get a glimpse of Robbie’s pain.

“…if there was two seconds in a day when I didn’t think about her, and wasn’t thinking about how she died, ‘There you go, Robbie, think about it some more, why don’t you?’ It’s good, too, that as much as a person might’ve tried to avoid the details of what happened, cos he didn’t think it’d do any good, and he didn’t think he could bear it, it’s also good to be informed in twenty foot high lettering, and a real nice font, the precise details of her last moments, y’know? That it wasn’t enough that she was raped, and it wasn’t enough that she died, no. “Raped While Dying”. Thank you, mom.”

At the end of that ride, Mildred goes into Angela’s room and is brought back, with us, to their last conversation in which Angela wants to borrow the car.

“Angela, why don’t you just ask me if you can borrow the car?”

“Can I borrow the car?”

“No.”

“Bitch!”

“But I’ll give you money for a taxi if you ask me nice and don’t call me a bitch.”

“Why did you make me ask you to borrow it if you was never gonna let me borrow it?”

“Cos it was funny. And cos you’ve been smoking pot all day.”

This moves on in the same tone, with Angela accusing her mother of having driven drunk, and Mildred saying that happened after her husband had beaten her and ends with the following.

“So are ya gonna let me borrow the car or what?”

“Why don’t you just walk, Angela? Why don’t you just walk?”

“You know what, I will walk, I will walk. And y’know what? I hope I get raped on the way.”

She storms out, with Mildred yelling back at her, “Yeah? Well I hope you get raped on the way too!” 

Leaving us with the sense of a mother’s enormous guilt, further fuel for the later billboard campaign, and a horrible sense of tragedy from the rage between mother and daughter that also seems to have thrown this plot into motion. 

The intra-familial drama continues as we go back to the present and see Mildred’s ex-husband pushing her up against a beam by the neck in her dining room. Robbie, their son, puts a knife to his throat to stop it. Violence leads to more violence. 

Dixon is egged on by his Mama to get back at Mildred by arresting her friend, the young black woman who runs the store Mildred works at part time. This creates more tension between Mildred and the police, with Willoughby temporarily hospitalized.

And then, in the midst of this montage of rage and violence, we suddenly find ourselves on a beach by a riverbank on a sunny day with Bill Willoughby, his young looking wife and their two little girls. The girls are sitting on a blanket holding fishing rods, with a bunch of stuffed animals spread out in front of them on the blanket. Willoughby and his wife are standing, she holding a bottle of wine. They are laughing and smiling as Willoughby tells his little girls in a playful tone, 

“Now, the rules here are twofold; no kid can leave this goddam blanket at any goddam time, and every single one of these dolls and these teddy bears has gotta be hooked up. Now, your momma and I, although it won’t look like it, we’ll be watching every goddam move you make and the most important thing while we’re watching you is you do not leave this blanket. The next most important thing is  you do not at any stage allow the fishing rods to stick into you or your sister’s eyeballs, as this would be counter-productive to the entire operation. What would this be?”

The girls answer in unison, very cutely,“Counter-productive to the entire operation.” Bill and Anne Willoughby start to walk away, and we cut to another, also tender scene.

Mildred is placing flowers in pots near the billboards. The sky is still bright blue, we hear the chirping of birds, and Mildred looks up and sees a fawn grazing on the nearby grass. She begins to speak to the deer in a soft, sweet tone, smiling at times with a warmth we have not seen in her.

“Hey baby. Yep, still no arrests. How come, I wonder? Cos there ain’t no God and the world’s empty and it don’t matter what we do to each other? Ooh, I hope not.”

She pauses, then goes on, “How comes you came up here outta nowhere, looking so pretty? You ain’t trying to make me believe in reincarnation or something, are ya?” … another short pause … “Well, you’re pretty, but you ain’t her. She got killed, and now she’ll be dead forever. I do thank you for coming up, though. If I had some food I’d give it ya, but I’ve only got some Doritos and I’d be scared they’d kill ya, they’re kinda pointy. Then where would we be?”

The deer ambles off, and we move to the next scene in Red Welby’s office. Mildred is being told by Red that he has realized the money she gave him for the first month’s rent for the billboards should have actually been a down payment, so that she is technically in arrears. As they are speaking, his young woman assistant comes in with an envelope with money for the billboards from an anonymous donor. (We will later learn that the donor is Bill Willoughby.)

We move back to the Willoughby’s, now home from their outing. Bill is tucking his daughters into bed. One of the girls asks him if Mommy is drunk. He tells her, “No, no, she’s just got a little migraine, that’s all. A little Chardonnay migraine, now no more chit chat out of you two, ok?”

The same girl asks, “Can we stay home from school again tomorrow, Daddy?”

“We’ll see what your mommy says in the morning, darling.”

Both girls call out “Aw!”

“But I’m pretty sure she’ll say yes though.”

“Yay!”

“Now eyes closed and get some sleep, okay?”

He kisses them goodnight.

We next see him looking down on his wife. He kisses her and says, smiling, “You don’t

smell of puke. Which is good.” _

She answers, smiling back, “Aquafresh. Trick I learned.” _

“Women, huh?” 

“Oh yeah. Resourceful.”

“It’s still your turn to clean the horseshit outta the stable, y’know?” _

“Oh those fucking horses! They’re your fucking horses! I’m gonna have those fucking

horses shot!”

“I’ll do it, you lazy bitch.” (playfully) _ 

“Thank you, poppa. That was a real nice day. And that was a real nice fuck. You got a real nice cock, Mr Willoughby.” _ _

“Is that from a play, ‘You got a real nice cock, Mr Willoughby?’ I think I heard it in a Shakespeare one time.” _

“You dummy. It’s Oscar Wilde.”

He laughs.__

In the middle of all the rage and pain and sorrow, we are brought through this extended sequence, who could say how long, of tenderness, love and caring. Mildred with the deer seems to reflect the same mood we feel with Bill Willoughby and his family.

But when I was watching the film a second time in order to prepare for writing this, I had to stop in the middle of the scene by the lake, and again in the middle of the scene in the children’s bedroom. I stopped because it was too painful to watch, knowing what would come next.

That sunny day with his girls was Bill Willoughby’s tender approach to his suicide. Knowing he was dying of cancer, he prepared that day to be his last. We next see him at the stables, patting down the horse, saying goodbye to them, putting a mask a stocking cap over his head and face with a note in front telling whoever to found him not to take off the cap, but to “call the boys,” the police. Saying, “Oscar Wilde” with a little smile, he puts a revolver to his head and fires it. We see his body on the ground and begin to hear his note to his wife, telling her how much he loves her and the girls, that he wanted to spare them the months of seeing him dying, and that the day was wonderful.

I know that the words don’t completely capture the warmth of these scenes, but I hope that it conveys the intensity of tender emotions and the contrast with the emotions that precede it and follow it. I found the one line in Mildred’s soliloquy to the deer particularly poignant, “You ain’t trying to make me believe in reincarnation or something,are ya?” Like a chance word spoken by a patient, it opens up a world of fantasy and the mixed emotions that go with it.

Willoughby’s suicide seems to increase the pace of emotional volleyball. In what feels like a short space of time, Dixon on hearing of Chief Willoughby’s death, sinks into uncontrollable sobbing as another police officer hugs him. Then, continuing the cycle, he marches across the street with a billy club and his pistol, smashes through the door to the advertising office, pistol whips Red Welby, smashes the second story window with his billy club and throws Welby out the window. He slides down an awning and lands in the street. On his way out, Dixon punches the young female receptionist in the nose and gives Welby a kick as he is crossing the street under the gaze of a stunned middle aged black man, who will turn out to be Chief Willoughby’s replacement.

People openly blame Mildred and her billboards for Willoughby’s suicide. The local TV reporter suggests it as the motive. A dangerous looking man menaces her in the shop where she works, interrupted by Anne Willoughby who comes in (the day after her husband’s suicide) to give Mildred a letter Chief Willoughby had left for her. Soon, Mildred and Robbie see the billboards in flames and desperately try to put out the fire. In retaliation, Mildred goes into town late at night dressed in black with several Molotov cocktails, lobbing them into what she thinks is an empty police station after phoning the number.1

Inside the station, Dixon, who has lost his job, is reading a letter from Chief Willoughby that was left for him. We see him absorbed in the letter, which we hear in Willoughby’s voice, oblivious to the flames around him. I’ve shortened the letter.

“Jason, Willoughby here. I’m dead now, sorry about that, but there’s something I wanted to say to you that I never really said when I was alive. I think you’ve got the makings of being a really good cop, Jason, and you know why? Because, deep down, you’re a decent man. … I do think you’re too angry, though, And I know it’s all since your dad died and you had to go look after your Mom and all. But as long as you hold onto so much hate then I don’t think you’re ever going to become what I know youwanna become, a detective. Cause you know what you need to become a detective? … Love. Because through love comes calm, and through calm comes thought. And you need thought to detect stuff sometimes, Jason. It’s kinda all you need. You don’t even need a gun. And you definitely don’t need hate. Hate never solved nothing. But calm did. And thought did. … Try it just for a change. … Good luck to you, Jason. You’re a decent man, and yeah you’ve had a run of bad luck. But things are gonna change for you. I can feel it.”

Mildred gasps when she sees Jason dive out of the police station in flames. It is James, the small person, who suddenly appears and swats out the flames. What she does not see is that Jason has run to save Angela Hayes’s file before escaping from the station.

Soon afterwards, we see Jason Dixon, covered in bandages like a mummy, wheeled into a hospital room where his roommate is Red Welby. Not knowing who his roommate is, Welby walks over to offer support. Dixon looks up at him and apologizes for what he’d done. At first stunned as he realizes it’s Dixon, he pulls himself together and leaves his glass of orange juice next to Dixon’s bedside in gesture of kindness. It’s as if Willoughby’s letter has added a new tone of forgiveness not only for Dixon, but for the film. We might say that there is a second aphorism: Love begets more love.

I hope that I’ve conveyed a sense of the intense conflicting emotions that buffet the viewer watching this film. I came to realize that that is what gave me the sense of having just seen something unique. We are used to having films create strong emotions in us. We welcome it when we go to the theater. But usually there is a common theme to those emotions and we leave with a predominant mood created by the filmmakers. In Three Billboards we are drawn into intense conflicting moods, and it is done so well that it does not feel artificial. I, at least, had no sense of having my emotions played with as sometimes happens watching a film. On the contrary, the emotions feel real and related to what is happening on the screen, sometimes appropriately leavened with touches of humor in the midst of the raw emotions.

What is also particularly unusual, unique perhaps, is that it is never resolved through a sad or happy ending. In that last scene of the film before the credits role on, Mildred and Dixon, now oddly allied, are heading to another state to pursue a man they had hoped was Angela’s killer, who unbeknown to Mildred, but known to us, was the man who had menaced her in the store. They have learned that he did not rape and kill Angela, but have good reason to believe that he murdered and raped another woman. Jason is armed with a rifle. 

As she drives, she asks him, “Dixon, you sure about this?

“About killing this guy? Not really. You?”

“Not really. … I guess we can decide along the way.”

The credits leave us with that, unsure what will happen next but appropriately left with the sense that the story and its cycle of emotions did not begin with the beginning of the film and has not ended with the darkening and arrival of the credits. That left me with a feeling of having gone through a very unusual,perhaps unique emotional ride.

 

 

1. How can a police station not have anyone there to answer the phone in the middle of the night?

 

Published originally in the PANY Bulletin Spring, 2016 issue.

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