Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: A Story of American Subtext

"How come, I wonder? Cause there ain't no God and the whole world's empty and it doesn't matter what we do to each other?"

[Review contains light spoilers]

I’m a fan of a clean, concise title. Assume I know nothing about the movie and haven’t seen the trailer. If someone mentions the title of your movie in a casual conversation, will it pique my interest?

If there was an Academy Award for Picture With the Best Name Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri would win easily. Although I must admit, Bye-Bye Man would give it a run for its money.

Anyway, what can a movie named Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri possibly be about? Well don’t be shocked, but the movie is about three billboards outside of a small town called Ebbing, Missouri. That’s the short answer. Long answer: Mildred Hayes is still mourning the violent death of her daughter. She feels the police department of Ebbing has been dragging their feet with this investigation. So she decides to do light a fire under them.

Her three billboards read:

  1. Raped While Dying
  2. Still No Arrests?
  3. How Come, Chief Willoughby?

Although these billboards contain ten words and one well-placed comma, it says so much more than what can be seen from a drive on this country road. Three Billboards is more about what these billboards don’t say. This movie is about the ever-so-subtle subtext of America.

When we think of America, we often think about New York, LA, and the other larger cities. The smaller towns in America are often forgotten although they represent the true America, for better or worse. These small towns are inaccessible, whether by physical highways or information highways known as the internet, so a lot of their old-time ideals are preserved and remained unchallenged. A lot of American subtexts is often birthed and bred here and is projected onto the world at large.

Just like when an old church lady says “God bless you, child” or me seeing another black man, who happens to be the only other black man in the room and giving him the head nod, these things are American subtext.

There is negative American subtext too. After every black man is gunned down, there is a newspaper article calling him a thug and claiming “he was no angel”. Blame is shifted to rape victims when they’re asked about their attire during the time of their attacks. Certain Americans aren’t allowed to buy into the classification of “hard-working, blue-collar” Americans because of the perception of their race.

America has a way of saying what it really means without actually saying it.

When Mildred Hayes put up her three billboards, this movie stopped being about solving a murder but more about America’s response to conflict and tribulations.

It became a story about police brutality.

It became a story about carrying guilt.

It became a story about offering compassion to your oppressor.

It became a story about redemption.

It became a story of self-discovery.

Yet, it still remained a story about how little we care about our women, whether it’s domestic violence or sexual assault.

By peeking through one of the smallest keyholes in America, we are allowed to see a true American story. It’s not pretty or politically correct but it puts all of America’s issues on the table.

Mildred serves as the unfiltered conscience of America. She asks Dixon if he will have time to stop torturing niggers to focus on real police work. She tells Father Montgomery that he has no place to come to her home to offer counsel when he aligns himself with the pedophiles of the Catholic Church. She often, and hilariously, badgers her abusive ex-husband for dating a 19-year-old because he knows he can control her. Mildred has her own problems but she’s self-aware. Knowing her inner-self allows her to be just the protagonist needed to call out the hypocrisy of the world.

When America sits at the table to discuss its issues, the conversation doesn’t need to be led by slick-talking, well-meaning politicians or figures of social progress who have to temper their true responses, it needs to be led by the Mildreds of the world. The everyday American who sees the wrong in the world, and themselves, but isn’t afraid to talk about it. More than ever, America needs a billboard asking “How Come?”.

This movie is sure to make some people uncomfortable. It’s already being labeled as problematic. However, I respect its honesty. Being from a small town myself, I have lived with these characters and experienced similar interactions. This movie is deeply American at its core. Sometimes, that honesty is uncomfortable.

  • Give Frances McDormand all the awards this season. She’s always been a great actress but this is the performance of a lifetime.
  • If you check this movie out and end up enjoying it, check out In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths also directed by Martin McDonagh.

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