Analysing Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Caution – contains spoilers

Unlike my previous articles, this will not be a review but more of an in-depth look at Three Billboards and what I think the film was trying to convey. There are spoilers ahead – you have been warned.

The film is about Mildred Hayes, played incredibly by Frances McDormand (nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress), who is desperate to find her daughter’s killer. She challenges the local authorities, calling out police chief Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson, who is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), who is suffering from the late stages of cancer. This angers the community, mainly the second-in-command office Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell, who is also nominated for Best Supporting Actor), who tries to resolve things with violence.

The general theme of the film was anger, nicely summed up as, “Anger begets greater anger”. However, just seeing it as that will not help us understand the philosophy of what’s going on.

We have to first look at the character arcs of the three main characters. Chief Willoughby kills himself after considering what is to come versus what is to lose; Dixon becomes closer to enlightenment after reading a letter left by Willoughby telling him that to become a detective, he needs to “love” as “through love comes calm, and through calm comes thought”. Mildred seems to comes to terms with the idea that ultimately, she may not find the killer and may not understand why the crime was committed.

These themes tie into the idea that perhaps not everything in life has a reason or an explanation, and not everything resolves itself neatly.

The central driver for the film is the pursuit of the truth of who killed and murdered Mildred’s daughter. Her case plays a part in all three character arcs. Whilst Willoughby told Mildred that the billboards had nothing to do with his suicide, he is “sure that everyone in town will assume that they did”. As a testament to the friendly antagonism he has with Mildred, he confirms that he paid the $5,000 needed to keep the billboards up for another month after his death. 

Dixon takes a spiritual path to finding the truth; beforehand, he did not really care who killed and raped Mildred’s daughter and was enraged by the billboards. After reading Willoughby’s letter, and receiving a small act of kindness from a victim of his violent temperament, he seems to see the error in his ways. He goes from being abusive and work-shy to being calmer and thinking things through in pursuit of the truth. 

Finally, Mildred accepts that she might not ever find out who killed her daughter, and that no amount of violence or anger can change that. She has realised that her trying to find the truth might be impossible, but she will not stop searching.

The film subverts expectations given that the killer is not caught during its running time; however, viewers are left with hope that one day he might be. Willoughby explains to Mildred that sometimes leads in a case run out, and all the police can do is hope that one day someone in a bar or a jail cell somewhere is heard bragging about the crime, so that the crime is “wrapped up through sheer stupidity”. For a moment, Mildred (and the viewer) is given hope that this has happened, as Dixon overhears a suspicious conversation in a bar and gets himself badly beaten to collect the suspect’s DNA. But he’s not our guy, and Dixon has not saved the day despite his best efforts.

Towards the end of the film, we are so used to Mildred and Dixon resorting to anger and violence that we are surprised when they show restraint. When Mildred has found out that her ex-husband burnt down her billboards, she walks over to his table in a restaurant with a bottle of wine in her hand. The audience will have expected Mildred to fly off of the handle and attack him with it, but instead she calmly places the bottle on the table and tells him to take care of his new girlfriend.

For a story based on such a dark crime, it contains a surprising amount of satire and dark humour. It presented some moral dilemmas and ambiguities whilst avoiding passing judgement on the characters or their actions. For example, Dixon was a violent police officer who unarguably used excessively force, and arguably on race-motivated grounds. Beyond him being relieved of his gun and badge, we never really saw him face any form of justice for this. Perhaps the fire obliterating his face is the film’s form of karma, but this was purposefully left with a question-mark hanging over it.

In the final few scenes, everything was left ambiguous. Would Dixon and Mildred, now a team of sorts, kill the man suspected of killing Mildred’s daughter (the thought process being that even if he was not her daughter’s attacker, he certainly raped someone else)? Who knows? Perhaps it is another question best left unanswered.