Hey there everybody, everybody! Here are my thoughts on the rest of the 2018 Best Picture nominations. I will be updating this as I go, so check back every so often. Enjoy!
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
A bit of a bizarre take on what would usually be a simple idea, Three Billboards follows a mother’s crusade to bring her daughter’s killer to justice. Mildred Hayes rents Three Billboards outside of her small Missouri town calling out the chief of police on the still open investigation into her daughter Angela’s rape and murder, bringing the stinging issue into the forefront of the community. As no progress is made, Mildred continually ups the ante in her attempts to get revenge, leading to more and more drastic consequences.
Frances McDormand expertly portrays the hellbent, grieving mother of Mildred opposite fantastic performances from Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby and Sam Rockwell as officer Jason Dixon. McDormand’s Mildred serves as the perfect foil to Harrelson’s harassed and terminally ill chief of police, while also being both a reverse and eerie mirror to Rockwell’s racist, inept Officer Dixon. Three Billboards is led by its cast of characters over a relatively simple plot, engaging its audience to pay more attention to the movie’s players than their actions.
In her quest to avenge her daughter’s gruesome rape and murder, Mildred Hayes undertakes increasingly dramatic courses of action to achieve her goal. Placing three billboards that read “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” is extreme by any measure.
But Mildred doesn’t stop there. After someone torches her billboards, Mildred responds in kind by chucking Molotov cocktails at the police station, maiming an unaware Dixon inside. And after DNA evidence comes back negative on an Idaho man in town that tells a story extremely similar to the death of Angela, Mildred and Dixon decide to hunt the man down, convinced he’s at least guilty of another rape, if not her daughter’s. As Three Billboards progresses we see Mildred not only go to more and more extreme lengths to avenge her daughter, we see her begin to stray from her righteous path of justice.
The flip side of Mildred in Three Billboards is officer Jason Dixon, an inept cop who lives with his mother and is known to openly discriminate against the black citizens of Ebbing. Useless while in the station, reckless and exceedingly violent outside of it, Dixon seems the antithesis to Mildred’s quest in every way. It’s cops like Dixon that can’t find her daughter’s killer, right?
As the film progresses, and shifts to follow Dixon as well as Mildred, we get a more complete picture of the police officer. Moved home to try and take care of his mother, wanting to be a good cop but just isn’t up to snuff, Jason Dixon is not the terrible man we see at the film’s start. An open racist and homophobe, yeah, at inexcusable levels no less, but still an interesting and surprisingly complex character. Which makes his redemption(? We’ll touch on that in a bit) all the more enjoyable.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Not wanting to wither away with cancer, Chief Willoughby has one last perfect day before taking his own life. Willoughby leaves a series of suicides notes for various people, including Dixon, which helps to turn the officer in the right direction, bringing the audience’s feeling towards Dixon along as well. The beloved police chief posthumously tells Dixon that he, “think[s] 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 know you don’t think I think that, but I do, dipshit.” Willoughby then gives Dixon some advice that changes his life and the film itself:
You know what you need to become a detective? And I know you’re gonna wince when I say this, but what you need to become a detective is 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.
This inspires Dixon, giving him the clarity (attempt to, at least) become a good cop, to seek out justice and make up for his past misdeeds.
One paper, Three Billboards is about Mildred Hayes’ search for her daughter’s killer, damned be the consequences, and the redemption of officer Dixon from racist asshole to vigilante brawler and murderer. But ultimately, Three Billboards is an observation on what someone’s crusade can lead to, despite their intentions.
Look at Dixon: he wants to be a detective, but at his core what he really wants is respect. He thought he could get it as a cop, but he’s not very good at that, so he began abusing that power on the black community in Ebbing to slake his thirst (though this is more fear than respect). He likely looked to Willoughby as a father figure since his father passed away an unknown number of years ago, so Willoughby’s lack of respect in him must have hurt as well. But it is the late chief’s letter that turns Dixon’s life on the correct path, it seems, and leads him to leave behind hate as he was advised. But with the film ending before we see the outcome of his and Mildred’s road trip, the true impact of Willoughby’s words and the story of Jason Dixon are ultimately left for the audience to determine.
Dixon’s story in Three Billboards is the flip side to that of Mildred, who undertook increasingly drastic and questionable means for revenge. The billboards themselves were not that an insane move, even chief Willoughby will admit this. Mildred starts to derail her train of righteousness when, angry of her boards’ arson, decides to light up the police station in retaliation, thought by her to be empty. Her actions severely maim Dixon, which actually ends up sending him down his right path, but at what cost.
Mildred then starts to see the damage she is causing. Nearly burning down a building, shoving away friends, causing her son Robbie an unimaginable amount of grief, as well as her ex-husband and Angela’s father Charlie, and forcing the police of Ebbing to flounder in a case. Willoughby expresses this to Mildred, first unsuccessfully, then again posthumously:
There are just some cases, where you never catch a break. Then 5 years down the line, some guy hears some other guy braggin’ about it in a barroom or a jail cell. The whole thing is wrapped up through sheer stupidity. I hope that might be true for Angela, I really do.
Willoughby, and the rest of the police force, truly wanted to catch Angela’s killer, but there was simply nothing they could do at that point. Mildred wasn’t able to accept this, and began to hurt those in her community. Mildred then takes her grief-ridden crusade across the country, determined to at least bring someone to justice, even if it isn’t the justice she was looking for.
Someone’s aspirations can cause nothing but pain for those around them, and when they are blind to the extent to which they are willing to go to achieve them, they can lose sight of why they are here in the first place.
As Charlie puts it, “All this anger, man, it just begats greater anger,” echoing note Willoughby left for Dixon. And this is where the heart of the movie lies. Anger begatting anger.
Anger at her daughter’s rapist and killer led her to lash out at those around her, those trying to help her find the man, to seriously injure the man that was just then learning how to let go of his anger. Mildred’s anger almost destroyed the police station’s file on Angela’s case, if it hadn’t been for Dixon’s quick thinking. She quite literally almost burned up her chances of finding her daughter’s killer because of her anger.
For both Mildred and Dixon, their anger were holding them back from achieving their goals. Like Willoughby said, “Through love comes calm, and through calm comes thought.” Anger held Mildred back, keeping her seething when she could have, should have, been loving those she still has in her life. Dixon’s anger was keeping him from being a competent police officer and member of society, and took drastic measures (looking like Two-Face) to realize his errors.
At the end of Three Billboards, Mildred and Dixon are driving to Idaho to killer the probable rapist/murder they had encountered. As she drives, Mildred asks Dixon:
Mildred: Are you sure about this?
Dixon: Killing this guy? Not really, you?
Mildred: Not really. I guess we can decide along the way.
As they continue on in silence, and the music swells, we fade to black, leaving the fate of Mildred and Dixon untold. Will they go through with it? Yeah, the guy is almost certainly a murderer, but this won’t avenge Angela. Is killing this man the right thing for them to do? Will it give Mildred the closure she so desperately needs? I don’t think it can, but maybe it will help
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was about as enjoyable a film you could find. Brilliant performances from McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson were elevated by a tight and excellently written script that would alternate perfectly between fast-paced, witty humor and crushingly heavy and sober drama.
With that said, I found the movie overall to be a little shallow. While the characters and the dialogue were superb, the movie really does nothing to grow its characters and progress its plot until at least the half-way mark. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in film, but with a movie like this, where most of the characters were relatively one-dimensional, the spectacle of the movie itself needs to bring more to the table. I loved watching the characters of Mildred and Dixon and Willoughby and everyone else, but when what they’re doing begins to drag on for no real reason, then the movie starts to stall.
Despite my few issues with the film, I still very much enjoyed it, and absolutely recommend it. I give Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a rating of
out of a possible 3.5.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was nominated for six Academy Awards:
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role – Frances McDormand
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role – Sam Rockwell
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role – Woody Harrelson
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score) – Carter Burwell
Best Original Screenplay – Martin McDonagh
Best Achievement in Film Editing – Jon Gregory