Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri left me in a weird spot. Which is true with a lot of people. I found it problematic that I was being asked to sympathize with Jason Dixon. Dude was the embodiment of awful cops. And it seemed the movie was, at times, trying to posit Dixon as the victim. “His father died and he was angry. His mom is a racist, so he just doesn’t know better. He wants to be a detective and do good things! Look, he was burned then beat up, now doesn’t that mean we can like him now?”
Compare Dixon’s portrayal to Danny Vinyard of American History X. Vinyard is a grade-A racist, neo-Nazi asshole who eventually goes to jail for murdering a black man. While in prison, he’s raped by other neo-Nazi assholes. Over a period of time, we watch Vinyard become friends with Lamont, a black inmate. By the time Vinyard leaves prisons, he’s no longer the guy he was. We then follow him as he goes back to his old life and tries to make amends and save his brother, who’s gone down a similar path.
Where Three Billboards has various people defending Dixon and at times seemingly tries to make Dixon endearing, American History X avoids any of that with Vinyard. No one defends him. No one pities him. His actions are his actions and the movie frames him as a monster. Then observes as that monster searches for and discovers humanity.
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Initially, that's what I wish Three Billboards would have done. And would have been my major criticism of Three Billboards. But that criticism didn't last long. That's because, in looking to explain the ending of Three Billboards, I discovered that almost every character in the movie has a similar sympathetic/unsympathetic duality about them.
Starting with the ending
At the end of Three Bullboards, we're left with Mildred and Dixon in a car, traveling to Idaho to maybe murder the man they had thought raped and murdered Mildred's daughter but apparently didn't. We're left with them sharing that they're not sure they actually want to go through with it. That they'll figure it out when they get there.
Right away, what stands out is that we have two morally ambiguous characters left to decide if they will or will not murder a man who may be or may not be guilty of a crime. A man who is 100% an asshole but may be 100% innocent of anything more serious than that.
Mildred is morally ambiguous. She's grieving mother, which is endearing. But she's also rude and psychotic enough to have molotov cocktailed the police station.
Dixon is morally ambiguous. He was a racist fucking cop who thought himself above the law and was violent and a slob and awful. But then he's also a mama's boy, is grieving his father, grieving Willoughby, and humbled from injury and a dark night of the soul.
And the man they're going to kill is morally ambiguous. He's a US soldier who has served and served, it would seem, with distinction. That's noble. But he's also stalked Mildred, threatened her, hinted that he's the one who killed the daughter, and talked about raping a girl and setting her on fire, then beat up Dixon. So a god damn lunatic.
None of this is just happy coincidence—maybe if we were in Creative Writing 101. But professional writers structure narratives how they do for a reason. They utilize motif, characterization, plot, and escalation, to build to a purpose. In this case, that purpose appears to be leaving us, the viewers, with the question of not only what we think Mildred and Dixon will do but also what we think they should do, given the information we have.
The thing about endings
The thing about endings is that they tend to encapsulate the entirety of the movie. Lion King is a great example of this. There's a micro theme and a macro theme. The micro being Simba overcoming his past by confronting Scar, confronting his secret, and taking his rightful place in as king. Everything that happens in the story serves the singular purpose of building to that internal and external confrontation. While on the macro level, the movie moves through the concept of the circle of life.
MUFASA: Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures. From the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.
SIMBA: But, dad, don't we eat the antelope.
MUFASA: Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great circle of life.
The movie opens with the song "The Circle of Life" and the birth of Simba, moves through his childhood, adolescence, and finally to his adulthood, when we get, once again the song "The Circle of Life" and the birth of Simba's child. That cyclical structure—beginning and ending with the same song/scene—isn't just cute. It's thematically relevant as it shows not only how repetitious the world is but how dependent it is on repetition. When Scar disrespected the circle of life by killing Mufasa and exiling Simba the results were disastrous. The pride lands went to ruins. Drought. Famine. It's only when order was restored with Simba's return that the world returned to good health.
The movie ends the way it does because it completes the thematic journey and drives home the point about circular nature of things.
This is common common common practice in theme-driven movies and books and poems. By looking at the end of a story, you can typically draw conclusions about what the rest of the story was aiming for.
So what's that mean about Three Billboards?
This is where things get pretty interesting. If everything at the end is morally ambiguous, does that mean the rest of the movie is about moral ambiguity?
I'll give you a moment...
Let's look at the other characters.
Police chief of Ebbing. Definitely morally ambiguous. Wonderful father. Husband. By all accounts, a well-loved member of the community. But he protected Dixon who is not only racist but apparently assaulted a black man in custody. And there's definitely ambiguity in his suicide. On the one hand, he didn't prolong his own suffering or that of his family. On the other hand, what religious implications are there to that? And he also, it could be argued, abandoned his family when he could have had how much more time with them?
Willoughby's wife. A happy wife and mother. Moments of moral ambiguity are relatively small. Leaves her daughters, alone, near a river, to go off and sleep with her husband. Is rude to Mildred when bringing Mildred Willoughby's post-suicide letter, even though Anne should know (we assume she'd read the letter) that Willougby had no hard feelings towards Mildred for the signs as he wrote in the letter that it didn't bother him at all.
Mildred's ex-husband. Abusive piece of shit who walked out on his family for a younger woman. But a police officer and a father mourning the loss of his daughter. And I think there's part of everyone who understands that Mildred may not have been the easiest person to love or live with or be married to, so in a way we might understand divorce...though not the abuse or the cheating.
Charlie's girlfriend. She's a young girl who means well but comes off as kind of dumb but not dumb. But she cheated with a married man.
Mildred and Charlie's daughter. A victim of rape and murder. In her brief screen time she's shown to be a firecracker, just like Mildred. She's kind of whiney, and when she's told she can't take the car her immediate reaction is to call her mom a "bitch". Then it turned out Angela was spending time with her father without telling Mildred (which some would support and others wouldn't, but that's what makes it morally ambiguous). Then when Mildred talks about Charlie having beat the shit out of her the response by Angela is to say, "Which we've only got your word about." Yeesh. Before storming out of the house to walk to wherever she was going, Angela declares she hopes she's raped, just so Mildred feels bad. Definitely morally ambiguous.
Mildred and Charlie's son. Loves his mom, but also get frustrated at his mom (which is understandable). Defends his mom from his dad, but also goes so far as to put a knife to his dad's throat
James (Peter Dinklage)
Nice guy. Has romantic intentions towards Mildred. Provides an alibi for Mildred after the police department bombing. But he leverages that alibi into getting Mildred to go on a date with him. When Mildred is unhappy on the date, James makes a scene, publicly shaming Mildred. Sure, Mildred wasn't a great date...but that's who she is. I'm sure people would defend James's outburst, but the morally superior thing to do would have been to just politely leave.
Managed the billboards. Like Anne, he's someone else who had more good than bad. On the good side of things, he called out Dixon for being an asshole and helped Mildred as best he could. Post-being attacked by Dixon, Red's kind enough to help Dixon in the hospital. Which is an act of kindness that leaves Dixon in tears. When it comes to crossing into that negative realm, it could be said that Red didn't really help Mildred, only did his job. So was morally neutral, there. And that he actually taunted a police officer to that officer's face. People who respect authority would argue, I think, no matter what Dixon was accused of, that Red had crossed the line by disrespecting Dixon like that.
Helped put the billboards up. Similar to Red and Anne. Jerome helped Mildred out by bringing the extra copy of the billboard copy after they had been burned. Not much in the bad area. He, like Red, also disrespected Dixon. And Jerome didn't rush to help when Dixon was getting the shit kicked out of him by the soldier. Though Jerome does tell the soldier that Dixon's police, ending the assault.
Mildred's friend. Supports Mildred. But does get arrested for possession of marijuana. Which is, for many people, a non-issue. But in conservative areas like Idaho...marijuana would still be a moral no-no.
Dixon's mom. A loving mother who is also a racist drunk.
As you can see, some of these are more complicated than others. That mostly has to do with their importance to the story. Willoughby is more complex than Robbie. Angela is more complex than Red. James is more complex than Denise.
Almost every character that has a speaking scene ends up having some degree of moral ambiguity about them. Which isn't really typical. They didn't have to have Robbie bring a knife to the dad's throat. He could have just said, "Dad! Stop!" They didn't have to make Angela so aggressive. They didn't have to make Dixon's mother a racist. Nor did it have to be Anne who brought Mildred the letter, acting cold. Jerome didn't have to be the one who brought the billboard material to Mildred, nor did he have to be the one who was at the bar when Dixon got beat up. The dentist didn't have to threaten Mildred out of a love for Willoughby. Nor did the media have to be shown supporting Mildred then shown speculating about her irresponsibly. There's a reason all of these things were included.
Given what we know about the ending, and given what we know about how endings help explain the intention behind the plot choices as a whole...the conclusion would then be that these choices were made because they added to the moral ambiguity that's the film's central theme.
You may have noticed that I left one character out. Abercrombie. He's the man who takes over for Willoughby, the new police chief of Ebbing, Missouri. Despite how lovely Willoughby was as a husband and father...if you judge the health of the department by its worse officer then Willoughby had done a questionable job as chief. At best, he kept on an officer who didn't care about the rule of law, much less the community. At worst, he protected a racist with an anger issue who abused his power.
So when Abercrombie shows up and fires Dixon first thing—wow. Doesn't Abercrombie look like a hero?
There isn't, it seems, anything morally ambiguous about that.
What else does Abercrombie do? He questions Mildred and James about the police department bombing. He's new in town, so might not realize it was 100% Mildred. Or maybe he does and him letting them go is his moral ambiguity?
What else does he do?
Oh yeah. He's the one that tells Dixon that the guy Dixon thinks raped and murdered Angela is actually innocent.
ABERCROMBIE: There's no match to the DNA. No matches to another other crimes of this nature. To any crimes at all, in fact. And his record is clean. Maybe he was just bragging? At the time of Angela's death, he wasn't even in the country. I've seen his records of entry and exit to the states, and I've spoken to his commanding officer. He wasn't in the country, Dixon. He ain't our guy.
DIXON: Where was he?
ABERCROMBIE: That's classified information.
DIXON: Aw come on man!
ABERCROMBIE: If the guy has a commanding officer. And if the guy got back to the country nine months ago. And if the country where he was was classified. Which country do you think he was in? I'll give you a clue. It was sandy. [After Dixon's response] All you need to know is he didn't do anything to Angela Hayes. So. We're going to keep looking.
On the surface, it seems like this suspected rapist and murderer is innocent. We, as viewers, are inclined to believe Abercrombie because he's the guy who finally had a decent enough conscious to fire Dixon. So he must be honest, right?
But if we know that every character has some moral ambiguity about them...and firing Dixon certainly wasn't morally ambiguous, and not arresting Mildred wasn't morally ambiguous...that leaves the explanation of the soldier's innocence. Either that's not morally ambiguous either...meaning that Abercrombie is a serious outlier in a movie that doesn't really have an outlier...Or there's a moral ambiguity here.
What would that be?
The set up is there, right? This guy wasn't just your average military grunt who served a tour and came home. The details of his service are classified. Add that in with Abercrombie speaking directly to the commanding officer. Which is either really good due diligence on the part of Abercrombie...or it means the commanding officer called Abercrombie. "He wasn't in the country." "His record is clean." "There's no DNA match. No match to other crimes of this nature. To no crimes at all." That doesn't sound like an assertion of fact, that sounds like someone repeating what they were told to say.
This would mean that Abercrombie is a good enough guy to fire Dixon, but the kind of guy who respects chain of command. He wouldn't be the first officer who was told to drop investigating someone for a serious crime just because that person has connections.
This not only fits in with the theme of the movie—we're all capable of good and bad—but fits in with the portrayal of police in this movie: none are perfect.
You may be skeptical, but remember. Angela was killed seven months ago. And Abercrombie, despite saying the soldier wasn't in the country then, let's slip that the soldier "got back to the country NINE months ago."
So do they kill him?
While the movie seemingly leaves it open to interpretation, I think we have to assume yes. That's because there's no other reason to include the scene where the soldier visits the gift shop and threatens Mildred.
That scene could be explained by, "It makes us think Dixon will be right, but only serves to set up the twist that the guy is innocent." Which is true! Though we'll say "innocent" as we just kind of proved the guy definitely did it and Abercrombie lied.
See, Mildred doesn't know the guy Dixon thinks did it is the same guy that came into the store. As far as she's aware they're two separate people. Meaning that gift shop confrontation is a time bomb. The moment they get to Idaho and Mildred lays eyes on the guy, she'll become convinced he's the one because it adds up in her head. He's the one who stalked her. He's the one who brought up having did it not only to her but then again when Dixon overheard. Maybe he is just bragging and imagines himself as the one doing it, thinking there won't be any payback? Maybe he is innocent. But Mildred won't care. Enough signs point to "yes" that she will absolutely kill him.