Winston Churchill said he never worried about action – only inaction. I have the same fear about movies, especially when I’m going to see a Terrence Malick film (a mistake I’ll never make again). That’s because most films follow a plot where something bad happens, and then there’s a reaction.
Like John Wick (bad: dog murdered; reaction: revenge spree) or War of the Worlds (bad: alien invasion; reaction: save your family). So it goes to say that most movies are ABOUT ACTION. But Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – in addition to having one of the most obviously droll titles next to Snakes on a Plane – centers around how one woman dealt with the inaction of her town’s police force after her daughter was raped and murdered.
What would you do if you weren’t a detective, but just a parent, and the police sat on the murder case of your child (you could try to take the law into your own hands like Hugh Jackman in Prisoners, but that’s more of a classic lawless/revenge tale). Why, you could have the brilliant, and very legal idea of shaming the police via direct marketing: place a billboard in your town that’ll stir up controversy so the police force has no choice but to dive deeper into the case.
That was Mildred’s idea – a sort of grief coping mechanism cum bravado ballsy scheme that divided the town, mostly against her, because it shamed the beloved police chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson. It’s the kind of solution only cooked up in Hollywood, but one you could actually say isn’t so bad. Of course, the movie – directed by In Bruges director and Broadway hero Martin McDonagh – is about much more than Mildred’s billboards. It’s about a family in crisis, a small town with police brutality issues, self-improvement, and of course, inaction. Because at the end of the film, when (spoiler alert) the murderer and rapist is still on the loose, Mildred decides that she still won’t leave it at that. If the police won’t solve it, someone – anyone, has to pay.
Luckily, the film cuts out before it turns into Prisoners and leaves you with a redemption story, a feeling of unsettlement, but appreciation for two main characters (Mildred and Dixon), who have formed an unlikely bond.
The movie proposed so many “would I do that in her situation” scenarios, some more plausible than others (like burning down a police station), but in the midst was able to capture the sometimes sad and banal, sometimes hilariously unreal daily grind of small town southern life. Mildred asks Dixon how the “n-word torturing business is going” and he replies, “It’s ‘Persons of color’-torturing business, these days.”