This post discusses plot points from “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” including the film’s closing moments. If you read after this sentence and complain to me on social media about spoilers, I, like Mildred Hayes, cannot be held accountable for any actions I may take in response.
Much of the conversation surrounding “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — the multiple-Golden-Globe-winning drama from Martin McDonagh about grieving mother Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) message-by-billboard to the police, which roils the titular town — has centered on the redemption of Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon is a racist local cop who, we are repeatedly told, tortured an African American suspect in custody sometime before the movie begins. By film’s end, he is a changed man, one who feels shame for his actions and aids Mildred in her quest to find the man who raped and killed her daughter.
But what if “Three Billboards” isn’t about the redemption of Dixon, as I, and others, have suggested in our criticisms of the film? What if it’s not about a corrupt, racist cop finding absolution in a cold, cruel world? What if it is, instead, about the dehumanizing effect of pursuing justice without care for who gets caught in the crossfire or which potentially innocent individuals get hurt?
What if it is a tale of Mildred’s damnation?
We get a sense early on just how badly the death of her daughter has damaged Mildred when she and Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) meet to discuss the billboards for the first time. He informs her, reasonably enough, that the DNA found at the site of her daughter’s murder matched no one in any law enforcement database. Given that it’s the only evidence — there are no witnesses, as Mildred was the last known person to see her daughter alive — the lack of arrests in the case can come as no surprise.
“Could pull blood from every man and boy in this town, over the age of eight,” she suggests,* no twinkle in her eye to suggest she’s joking.
“There’s civil rights laws prevents that, Mrs. Hayes, and what if he was just passing through town?” he replies.
“Pull blood from ever’ man in the country, then,” she spits back.
“And what if he was just passing through the country?”
“If it was me, I’d start up a database, every male baby what’s born, stick ’em on it, cross-references it, and as soon as they done something wrong, make a hundred-per-cent certain it was a correct match, then kill ’em.”
“Yeah, well, there’s definitely civil rights laws prevents that,” Willoughby replies, with some exasperation at Mildred’s monstrousness.
There’s something funny about Willoughby hiding behind civil rights laws here, given the fact that he has been protecting Dixon, a prime mover in the town’s nascent “persons-of-color-torturing business.” Willoughby seems to find humor in the situation, joking that if he fired every racist cop there’d only be three left, “and all o’ them are going to hate the fags, so what are ya gonna do, y’know?” Dixon is a thug and a dullard — he has comic books scattered about his desk like some sort of man-child — but he is a man of action, throwing the Flannery O’Connor-reading, billboard-owning Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) out of a window following Willoughby’s suicide at the film’s midway point.
That little stunt, performed in front of Willoughby’s African American replacement, Abercrombie (Clarke Peters), costs Dixon his job. We think this may be a turning point for the local force, a moment when they get their act together. But even Abercrombie later cheers Dixon for illegally gathering DNA evidence from a suspect in the Hayes case by committing a vicious assault: Dixon scratches the face of someone he overhears in a bar bragging about committing a sex crime like the one suffered by Mildred’s daughter, hoping the boastful drunk’s genetic material will match that left at the site of the crime.
Dixon’s impetuousness is matched by Mildred’s own uptick in violence. We see her kick a pair of teenagers in the crotch after someone in a crowd throws a drink at her car. More seriously, she firebombs Ebbing’s police station (and almost kills Dixon in the process) after an unknown individual torches her controversial advertisements. In both the crotch-kicking and the firebombing, Mildred’s lust for justice is targeted against innocent parties — only one of those kids could have thrown the soda (and it may have been neither of them), and we later learn that the man who burned down her billboards doesn’t work in the police station.
Dixon and Mildred — the racist cop and the feminist firebrand — finally pair up in the film’s closing moments, joining forces and heading into Idaho to track down the man Dixon attacked. His DNA wasn’t a match for Mildred’s daughter’s killer, but no matter. There will be blood.
“I know he isn’t your rapist. He is a rapist though. I’m sure of that,” Dixon says, cradling a shotgun. “I got his license plate. I know where he lives.”
“That’s funny. I’m driving to Idaho in the morning,” she says.
“Want some company?” he asks.
“Sure,” comes the reply.
The film closes with the two of them trundling off to Idaho, shotgun jostling somewhere in the backseat, admitting to each other they’re unsure of going through with this plan to get justice for someone, somewhere. Maybe. Perhaps they’re aware that they’re sating nothing but their own bloodlust by going down this road. Regardless, their dawning awareness of the lunacy of their mission isn’t enough to get them to stop. And it’s hard to imagine these two hair-triggers simply calling it off after confronting the man in question.
For all that’s been written about the redemption and humanization of Dixon in the film’s second half, it seems to me that “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has a much stronger message about the dangerously fascist impulse that goes along the desire for total and perfect justice. It is a damning critique of not only the police for protecting their own but also of those who would join forces with the most corrupt among the cops in order to gain some measure of righteousness in this world. If one were feeling puckish, one might even compare Mildred’s self-righteous, half-cocked pursuit of evidence-free justice against all men everywhere to certain currents in our cultural moment.
Given the environment in Hollywood — at present the land of #MeToo and #TimesUp, with any number of men caught in the crosshairs — maybe an award-winning movie questioning the push for punitive justice based on little proof is just the film we need right now.
*All dialogue comes from the script of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” now available from Faber & Faber.