It seems that people are interpreting Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri on three different levels.
As a political statement, I’m not sure it works all that well, introducing ideas that might seem relevant to today’s political climate, and then not exactly examining them all that thoroughly, as if just using them as plot points or character traits is enough. As a theological examination it works a little better—director Martin McDonagh has often had Catholic undercurrents to his work, and we clearly see the arc of penance and redemption, and how devastating the cycle of violence can be.
But as simply a rich work of fiction, Three Billboards is exceptional. This is mostly the way I read the movie, and while I understand anyone who feels I’m completely missing a deeper point, I do think that there’s a lot to be said for just letting this be a complex story about complex people, a story that doesn’t fit neatly into any particular hole.
The premise is incredibly dark: Frances McDormand plays a woman whose daughter was raped and murdered, and who’s so unsatisfied with the police response to the crime that she buys three billboards and uses them to call out the chief of police in big block letters. This provocation gets her the attention she wants, and the police scramble to try to get her to take down the billboards as quickly as possible.
But this is mostly about the people involved and how they confound our expectations. McDormand is presented as our hero, but engages in plenty of deeply disturbing behavior. We’re set up to see the police chief as an enemy, but he’s actually a fairly decent person, and played by Woody Harrelson, who’s impossible not to like. And some level of redemption finds a foolhardy, racist cop, who remains reprehensible in many ways, but still does some good things.
McDonagh is a gifted writer of dialogue, and while this occasionally gets him into trouble when he’s just a bit too clever, his characters also surprise us with their thoughts, contradictions, and humanity. Three Billboards doesn’t give us comfortable feelings or any easy ways out, but it understands who these people are, how their actions have consequences, and how nothing ever turns out quite the way we expect.