Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” (Merrick Morton/20th Century Fox)

This piece discusses the plot of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in great detail.

When I saw it, I didn’t expect the year-end debates over “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” to become so vehement, in part because it didn’t occur to me that the movie would arouse particularly passionate defenses. Frances McDormand is outstanding as Mildred, a mother who has been shattered by the brutal rape and murder of her teenage daughter, and Woody Harrelson does lovely work as Willoughby, the sheriff who has failed to identify a serious suspect in the case. But they do so in a movie that is simultaneously overstuffed, sometimes with exhausting stereotypes, and underdeveloped.

In recent days, though, a number of critics I respect, including NPR’s Gene Demby and New York magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz, have been talking through their strong feelings about the movie on Twitter, many of them centering on Sam Rockwell’s Dixon, a viciously racist cop who becomes one of the film’s complicated heroes by its conclusion. “From responses I can see that there’s a major split between people who think this movie is a political, sociological failure and those who think it’s a success in theological/karmic ones,” Seitz wrote on Twitter. I think that’s a decent summary, but it also isn’t the whole story: the soft-touch treatment of Dixon may be a political weakness of the movie, but it also undermines the film’s theological convictions.

I think there’s a strong argument to be made that “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” would be a stronger movie if Dixon were either absent from the film or didn’t have a moral awakening.

“Three Billboards” doesn’t have — or make — room to explore the implications of his presence in the film. Sheriff Willoughby insists that he’s kept Dixon on the force because “You got rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have three cops left and all of them would hate the fags.” The movie never asks whether he’s right about the cop shortage in town. And it never examines what this kind of brutal practicality means for Willoughby’s supposed deep decency. If Willoughby is willing to tolerate a racist so brutal that the town residents describe Dixon’s conduct toward a suspect as torture, all the heartfelt, literary suicide notes in the world can’t make up for that, and Willoughby’s compromises ought to level the moral playing field between him and Mildred more than they actually do.

“Three Billboards” also makes inconsistent use of Dixon in illuminating the overall character of the town. It’s clear that people who deviate from the norm in some mild ways, such as Red (Caleb Landry Jones), James (Peter Dinklage) and Denise (Amanda Warren), all despise Dixon. Dixon’s only true constituent in town, beyond Willoughby’s grudging tolerance, appears to be his vituperative mother (Sandy Martin), which makes the film’s approach to him confusing. If “things have moved on in the South,” as Dixon complains at one point, wouldn’t it actually be easier for Willoughby to fire him than to keep him on the force? And if they haven’t, really, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” would have been a sharper movie for painting a fuller portrait of how divided the town actually is, and sketching in a full compliment of characters to stand in opposition to Mildred’s band of misfits.*

These are intellectual complaints, but Dixon’s presence in the movie and the need to redeem him are also the source of the film’s most profound structural flaw: The darn thing is full of false endings that drag on and on. There’s a version of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” that ends with Willoughby’s suicide and his decision to pay to keep Mildred’s billboards up after his death and after she’s run out of money.

In a slimmer edit of the film, those billboards would be an agonizing monument to Mildred’s grief and sense of abandonment. “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” is a question that will never have an answer. In this version, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” would end in pretty much the same state of moral agony, but without a series of endless and moderately implausible plot twists — including the suggestion that there are not one but two men who raped young girls as they were dying wandering around this corner of Missouri  intended to redeem Dixon and bring him and Mildred together that mostly make the film feel much longer than its actual running time.

Of course, Dixon is in the movie. And his redemption doesn’t merely defang his previous venomous bigotry; it softens Mildred’s character development.

In the final act, Dixon deliberately picks a fight with a man passing through town who has bragged about committing a crime that matches the particulars of Mildred’s daughter’s murder. He does so with the intention of getting a DNA sample from the man. When it turns out not to be a match, Dixon and Mildred team up to go kill him anyway, though the movie strongly implies that they will not actually go through with it, and will use the long drive to burn off their anger. If “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is supposed to be an Old Testament tale of Mildred’s destruction, it would have been much more powerful for her to team up with a completely unrepentant Dixon to kill a man innocent of this particular crime. That’s what damnation might actually look like: a mother so consumed with despair that she visits the same damage on someone else.

*And also about how the town might react to the appointment of a black outsider, Abercrombie (Clarke Peters), being appointed as the new police chief with apparently no notice to anyone.