Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a story about revenge. But under all the violence and jokes is a message we desperately need.
Directed by Martin McDonagh and starring actors Frances McDormand, Hunger Games’ Woody Harrelson and Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage, Three Billboards sets itself up as a kind of lowkey Kill Bill. It’s the story of a woman whom life has wronged in the worst ways, and who has given up on being patient.
What follows is a series of violent events — both physically and emotionally — that shake up a small town in unimaginable ways.
Like Kill Bill, it attracts an audience by making us root fiercely for the main character, regardless of her transgressions. We are morally aligned with Mildred; our peace of mind is tied to hers, and throughout the movie, we’re willing to forgive every billboard she posts, every insult she throws, even every bomb she sets off. It offers us that savage disconnection that’s reminiscent of Tarantino films.
Now more than ever, we love a story about taking back power from the system, about tracking down rapists and making them pay, about watching racists suffer because of their hate. It gives us a satisfaction that is seldom available in real life. Three Billboards knows this, and responds to it.
While the movie shies away from defining its moment in history, its characters’ frustrations feel achingly current. You look into the eyes of its characters and you see yourself staring back, angry.
But Three Billboards is not there to be a revenge fantasy. Its aim isn’t to provide us with gory closure. It’s a story about healing, masked as a story of revenge. And while it forces us to face our own frustrations, it heals us a little, too.
That’s not to say that the movie isn’t violent. It certainly is, and unapologetically so. But the characters are burdened by their hatred, and with every act of violence that takes place, we feel progressively less safe, less in control. Unlike Kill Bill, the violence isn’t sexy. It’s realistic, permanently scarring, and ugly to watch.
And it’s notably a story about older, white characters in a very small town, surrounded by African-American characters, Latino characters, and characters with achondroplasia. While it might seem like a frustratingly white-centric story despite the diversity of its cast, that’s because that’s the whole point.
Ebbing is a town that’s forced to face its own prejudice — Dixon his racism, Mildred her offensiveness, and the town itself its disregard for a dead girl. It feels like a turning point in Ebbing’s collective consciousness; a moment when it’s forced to face its own demons and find a way to move forward anyway.
Three Billboards is about realistic people in a realistic town, and while its laughs keep you away from feeling depressed at the weight of the story, it’s a fascinating snapshot of an almost oppressively frustrating moment in American history.
The movie doesn’t offer an easy way out for the issues its characters are facing. There is no quick solution to systemic violence or systemic racism, in the police force or outside of it. There is no fixing the problems that have already torn Mildred’s life apart. But for each character, there are ways to heal — for the victims and the perpetrators.
There is redemption, and it doesn’t have to mean violence.
Spread throughout the movie are little moments of compassion, between violence and dark hilarity. A victim showing compassion for his injured attacker, an angry mother putting her rage on hold in the face of her archenemy’s sickness, a violent man pausing to stroke his mother’s hair.
These actions aren’t out of character, nor do they excuse previous cruelty, but they are evidence that there is love in all of us, if we can only learn to harness it. That hatred is just a terrible barrier between an individual and the person he or she could become. That some decisions aren’t about being fair, but about letting anger go.
For a film about revenge, Three Billboards’ lack of real villains can seem confusing. But that’s the whole point: the goal isn’t really to have revenge — it’s to find a way to come together and heal, both from the crimes inflicted upon us and from the crimes we inflicted upon others.
In today’s world, it’s a message worth thinking about.