In a world where the Internet resides on the palm of our hands and our consumerist brains have become landfills for digital epistles, you’d think that good-old Billboards would become obsolete. When marketeers and e-commerce juggernauts are bombarding their target audience with customized ads and interactive engagement, Billboards would seem like the crumbling, giant Easter island heads that remind us of their once glorious past. Interestingly, that is not the case. Billboards are no more obsolete than cars in an age of Elon Musk’s space-shuttles. Despite their unwieldy and often impractical execution, Billboards effect an impact that can hardly be matched by their social media adversaries. With the evolution of the consumerist society, Billboards have now evolved as gigantic cultural reflections that turn a barren highway into a living museum of civilization, driving a subliminal message into our neo-cortex, hammering it down so deep that when we go down to the store that had been deftly advertised, we feel as if we were there of our own conscious choice.
Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri weaves a crime drama around an unlikely triage of three rundown billboards that adorn a now-defunct highway in the town of Ebbing. Mildred Hayes’ is a bitter woman, aggrieved by death of her teenage daughter who was brutally raped and burnt to death. Citing a lack of concrete evidence, the Ebbing Police Department conveniently puts the case on hold. After helplessly banging on their doors for seven long months, Mildred Hayes decides to take control into her own hands. While driving down the old Ebbing highway, she notices three decrepit billboards that have shards of some old ads hanging onto them. Since the opening of the new highway, the old one barely sees any traffic making it an unprofitable advertising location. However, Mildred sees an opportunity. Without a moment’s hesitation, she leases out all the three billboards for the whole year from the local advertising agency and slaps them with three messages subtly directed at the incompetence of the Ebbing Police Department.
As expected, this bold gesture stirs up the sleepy town, polarizing the community into two factions – one in which people side with Mildred’s giant middle finger to the establishment, and the other where they sympathized with her but shook their heads to her insanity, saying the people she was pointing fingers at had families and did not deserve the backlash. As the local news channel flashes the bright red billboards emblazoned with the distressing text on the TV sets of the residents, Chief Willoughby realizes that he wasn’t dealing with a typical victim and that Mildred could very well tear down his reputation to shreds. In a particularly distinctive scene, Willoughby tries to talk Mildred into taking down those ghastly billboards. When she outright refuses to do so, Willoughby tells her about his cancer and asks her if she really wanted to do this to him in his last days, to which Mildred replies that she already knew about it. When Willoughby asks her why she did it even when she knew, she replies [not sic] – “There’s no point putting them up after you’re dead, is there ?”. This scene fundamentally sums up the maniacal pursuit of justice by a scorned mother. The very nonchalant dismissal of a seemingly sensitive premise is a theme that runs like an undercurrent throughout the film. In another scene, Willoughby’s subordinate, a redneck officer called Jason Dixon sabotages the advertising agency that owned the billboards and throws the young proprietor through the window of his first-floor office in broad daylight.
Despite it being a crime drama at the outset, Three Billboards keeps the narrative faithfully rooted to those three billboards. From being a simple form of protest and call for accountability, the billboards undergo a gradual evolution through the film turning into symbols of changing dynamics between Mildred Hayes and the characters in Ebbing who find their lives intertwined with her plight. The billboards exert their influence like planets aligned in a zodiac, changing Willoughby and Dixon into guilt-ridden law enforcement officers who had failed Angela Hayes’ memory. Perhaps, this was the true triumph of the narrative, rather than finding the murderer. Mildred’s billboards forced the toughest men in Ebbing to accede to their responsibility and repent for it.
Frances McDormand, best known for her performance in Fargo (1996), is a one of the few actors who possesses the holy trifecta of acting – an Academy, a Tony and an Emmy. McDormand brings in an acerbic quality to the character of Mildred Hayes, balancing a raw red-neck temperament with the anguish of a mother who had just lost her daughter. Woody Harrelson adds an intriguing grey element to the character of Willoughby which is reminiscent of Detective Marty Hart from True Detective, carrying a personality that swings between the moral right and wrong. Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of a lackadaisical cop is on point and adds an allure to his transformation all the more.
McDonagh specializes in character caricatures as is testament from his previous works like In Bruges. His stories portray the flawed human condition in all its glory, making even the most sensitive of premises teeter towards comic sketches. Three Billboards manages to show a crime drama with the most unlikely of props which might seem like a risky script to work with. However, supplanted with some exceedingly authentic performances, we end up with a journey of transformation which ebbs and flows with the three ‘harmless’ billboards by the highway.
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