In this film Mildred Hayes played by Frances McDormand, in a powerful rage as a result of the lack of progress in the investigation of her daughter’s rape and murder, arranges for 3 large billboards to express that rage. She takes out her rage on the police department that she thinks spends too much time torturing black people to do a proper investigation of her daughter’s case. She specifically mentions the local sheriff Bill Willoughby played with typical grinning brilliance by perennial bad boy Woody Harrelson. He too feels anger because he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Every character feels anger in the film except one–Pamela the beautiful but air-headed 19-year old girl friend of Hayes’ ex-husband.
Willoughby however has learned to get over his anger. He has one last wonderful day, playing hookie and fishing with his two daughters, and keeping them occupied while he and his wife make love one last time. He later says in his suicide note that it was the best day of his life. When his daughter ask if Mommie is drunk, he replies she just has “a Chardonnay headache.”
We got the feeling that the Chief, Willoughby, had no respect for his young deputy, but he urges is young deputy to get rid of his hate. If he wants to be a good detective he must love–not hate. “Hate never solved anything,” he wisely says.
Amazingly, it is Pamela the intellectually challenged girl friend who brings the epiphany that delivers the moral center to the film from words she has read on a book marker while she was reading “that book about polio, you know the ones with horses.” The words that bring thematic focus to the film together with Willoughby’s suicide notes are that “anger begets greater anger.” Friedrich Nietzsche did not say it much better than that when he explored the topic of resentment. She may be dim, but she understands, what so many others fail to understand without great suffering.
The one weakness I found in the film was the religious theme. When a local priest comes to visit her, Mildred angrily and crudely rails at him—comparing the Catholic church to a gang and suggesting that he and every other churchman is “culpable” for the many abuses of children perpetrated by priests. They might be culpable but I did not think this worked well in the movie.
On another occasion Mildred sits by herself mulling things over when she says, echoing Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, “there ain’t no God, the world’s empty, and it don’t matter what we do to each other.” She noticed a deer near the spot where her daughter and wonders if she is supposed to think her daughter has been reincarnated as a lovely deer.
Mildred and Dixon have an awakening at the end of the film when they seem to realize that revenge is an empty vessel that will bring no nourishment. I don’t know why Mildred would change so drastically after one sleep. I thought it was an unearned, and hence unsatisfying transformation, even though I agree with the sentiment entirely. It was not a hard truth and therefore unsatisfying. Like a cheap thrill.
Recently we celebrated Martin Luther King Day here in the USA. He was not a perfect individual. Few of us are. But he was wise. He said, “I chose love because the burden of hate is too great.” That was a deeply earned insight.
Finally I commend the music in the film particularly the final song written by Townes Van Zandt, one of my favorites, and sung by someone I had never heard of before, Amy Annelle, with her ethereal voice.