Most movies, if they are done well, create expectations and then meet them. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a well-made movie, but it deliberately creates expectations that will not be met. And so it is that while we enjoy the movie for its artistic qualities, we are taken aback as it continually goes out of its way to deny us the satisfactions that we anticipate. Before trying to decide whether this is a good thing or not, we should first examine those unmet expectations in detail.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is the mother of Angela, a girl that was raped and murdered. Frustrated that so many months have passed with no arrests, she decides to rent three dilapidated billboards and have them state the crime, mention the lack of arrests, and ask Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) why. It’s pretty early in this movie, but our first expectation is that Willoughby is going to be her antagonist, that he is ultimately responsible for the fact that the police force is primarily concerned with keeping black folks in their place rather than solving crimes.
We are disabused of that notion when we find that Willoughby is a married man with two daughters. It is axiomatic that villains in movies never have young children, for then we would feel bad when the villain is killed or sent to prison, leaving the children at home, crying for their daddy. If an ostensible villain in a movie does have young children, he will typically escape punishment in the end. Furthermore, Willoughby is slowly dying from pancreatic cancer, thereby eliciting our pity. And then he commits suicide to spare his family the misery of watching him slowly die. Well, one thing is sure. He’s not going to be the one that raped and murdered Angela.
Our attention quickly shifts to Officer Jason Dixon. He is the one who is suspected of torturing a black guy. Unlike Willoughby, he is not married and he does not have children. Even more ominous is the fact that he lives with his mother, who seems to have a baleful influence on him. Why, we can almost see him holding a knife to Angela’s throat, with a maniacal look in his eyes, as he tells her, “Now, Momma says ….” So, we sit back and wait for him to get what’s coming to him.
At one point in the movie, Mildred is in a pool hall where Dixon is trying to intimidate Red, the man who rented Mildred the billboards, and who is playing pool with James, who is commonly referred to as “the town midget,” but who correctly refers to himself as a dwarf. Mildred picks up on the fact that he has a thing for her. Hold that thought.
After Willoughby shoots himself in the head, Dixon decides to take it out on Red by pistol whipping him and throwing him out the second story window. He punches Pam, Red’s secretary, in the face on his way out the door, stopping by Red’s body to kick him while he’s down. This is witnessed by the new Chief of Police, Abercrombie. We figure that since he is black, he will be a man of unimpeachable integrity. Having just witnessed a brutal assault, we just know that Abercrombie is going to have Dixon arrested and sent to prison. Nope. Apparently, Abercrombie does not want a scandal to muddy up his new job, so he just fires Dixon. But that only makes us think the movie is saving Dixon for later, perhaps to be killed by Mildred.
We are led to believe that Dixon set fire to the billboards. In revenge, Mildred tosses Molotov cocktails at the police station, setting it on fire. Dixon is inside, engrossed in a letter from the deceased Willoughby, saying that deep down, Dixon has the makings of being a good detective, but what he needs is love, because love will bring calm, and calm will bring thought, and thought will solve crimes. It’s bad enough that someone would actually write such drivel, but it turns out that the letter is transformative, that it turns Dixon into a good guy. But just as he is having this revelation, he becomes aware that he is trapped in the fire. He crashes out into the street, badly burned. James happens to be passing by at that moment, and he becomes aware that Mildred, who also enters the street, is the one who set the fire. He provides her with an alibi. She agrees to have dinner with him but says she won’t have sex with him.
It is rare for a dwarf to be in a movie, and when one is, we don’t expect him to be the love interest, unless it is with someone his own size. So, we wonder what is going on. I won’t try to speak for others on this matter, but my expectation was that Mildred would end up giving him a “pity fuck,” and then when it turned out to be pretty good sex, they would start making a regular thing of it. But when they go to dinner, she humiliates him and makes him feel contemptible. Did they have to put that in the movie just to make us feel bad?
At the same dinner, Mildred discovers that it was her wife-beating ex-husband who set fire to the billboards. After James leaves, she picks up the bottle of wine by the neck, which leads us to think that she is going to use it as a weapon, to break it over her ex’s head. But she just sets the wine on the table for him and his nineteen-year-old girlfriend to enjoy.
A menacing character, who earlier threatened Mildred in the store where she works, is later heard by Dixon bragging about some girl he raped and then burned with gasoline, which fits with what we know happened to Angela. We think that this will finally be the payoff we have been waiting for, that he will suffer for what he did to Angela. Nope. DNA evidence proves it wasn’t him, besides which he was stationed in the Middle East at the time.
But he’s still a rapist. And now that Dixon knows that he needs love, so he can be calm, so he can think, so he can solve crimes, he teams up with Mildred to go kill the rapist as a substitute form of revenge. We don’t expect to actually see them kill this bad guy, since we are running out of movie time, but at least it will be implied. But as they are driving down the road, their dialogue begins to sound like something out of a Paddy Chayefsky play: You sure about killing this guy? Not really. What about you? Not really. Well, what do want to do tonight? I don’t know, what do you want to do tonight?
So, now we can ask, “What is the point of all these unmet expectations?” One reason might be that we do tire of formulaic movies, so it is good to watch a movie occasionally that defies the norm. A second reason might be that it makes the movie seem more realistic, because we all know how unfulfilling and disappointing life can be. After all, the movie is loosely based on a real unsolved murder that involved billboards. Of course, while art may reflect life, not all life is worthy of being made into a movie. My own life is proof of that. A third reason might be pretensions on the part of the writer and director, who wants to be like, well, Paddy Chayefsky.
Whatever the reason, I suppose it’s all right to make a movie like this once in a while, one that frustrates our expectations, just so we can have a little variety in our movie-going experience. But I don’t think we want them to make a regular thing out of it.