Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
With all the acclaim and awards love his film has received so far, Three Billboards seems all but set to triumph at the Academy Awards this year. However some have come down so heavily against this film that it’s potential Oscar victory has drawn comparisons to Crash, a film often cited as the worst Best Picture winner of recent years. In either case Three Billboards is certainly one of those films that was destined to receive awards attention. It features a strong cast delivering explosive and quirky performances, the writer/director McDonagh is well-liked and respected, and its story speaks vividly about the world we live in. When a subject this topical is portrayed with such confidence as this movie displays, I think there often comes with that a certain presumption of truth that leads some viewers to accept what’s presented without scrutiny. Clearly there is something about the film that rings true to many viewers and feels timely but, the more I think about what it depicts, the more off it all feels to me.
The film takes place in the fictional Ebbing, a rural, southern town which some months prior saw the brutal murder of a teenage girl. Her grief-stricken mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), angry over the lack of progress in the police investigation, rents three billboards near her home which read, “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” The billboards cause uproar in the town, especially with Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the well-liked police chief recently diagnosed with cancer, and James Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a drunken, racist officer extremely prone to violence. While Willoughby resents the attack on his character, he nevertheless sympathises with Mildred’s grief and takes the whole thing in stride. Dixon, on the other hand, lashes out against Mildred and those who helped her, leading her to lash back in return. The conflict soon spirals out of control as Mildred and the residents of Ebbing become more and more consumed with anger.
While the film has proven divisive, most people seem to agree its strongest aspect is the portrayal of Mildred as a rage-filled, grief-stricken woman whose anger towards the town for its indifference towards her tragedy is released in a divine fury. In the wake of the ‘Time’s Up’ movement where it looks like the tide is finally turning on the perpetrators of sexual misconduct, there is certainly something glorious in Mildred’s wrath as she instigates an all-out war on the deep-seated misogyny of Ebbing. Although the town understands all too well the loss Mildred has suffered, there still remains an unspoken rule that she must remain silent and not allow her suffering to rock the boat. There is a clear status quo that ‘good men’ such as Willoughby, a mostly respectable man with a beautiful young wife (played by Abbie Cornish) and two cute kids but whose tendency to overlook the wrongdoings of his other officers enables the culture of rampant police brutality, have benefitted from and it is a status quo that the town wants to maintain (even if that means a teenage girl gets raped and murdered every now and then). Enough is enough, says Mildred, who has decided that she will not allow her daughter’s murder to become another sad episode in the town’s history for the residents to forget about; she is going to make sure that the extent of her grief is known whether the townspeople like it or not.
It is a powerful arc and McDormand sells it wonderfully. Her performance is raw and intense as a character who no longer has the patience to contain her pain and anger. Her bitterness has given her a hostile demeanour and a sardonic sense of humour, as we see when she baits the dim-witted Dixon and parries every insult thrown her way with something even more vicious and biting. I don’t think I was as blown away by McDormand as others were, in part because I’ve seen her play a deeper, more fully-realised version of this embittered, wretched, forlorn character in Olive Kitteridge, but it is a great performance none the less. I’m just not sure the story did justice to her character or what she’s supposed to represent. In previous projects like In Bruges McDonagh has had no qualms about writing politically incorrect characters behaving in politically incorrect ways, and in that film at least it works. But with Mildred a lot of these provocations seem like provocations for their own sake. She, just like many of the other characters, drops words like “nigger”, “faggot”, “retard”, and “midget” very matter-of-factly and all it serves to do is get a rise out of the audience. There is no introspection, no attempts to engage with the effect those words have when she uses them.
Things are even more problematic where the Dixon character is concerned. This is someone who we are quite clearly supposed to think of as deplorable; he is a pathetic, idiotic drunkard, an unabashed racist who is known to have tortured a person of colour in police custody, and an impulsively aggressive man whom we see commit acts of brutality. The film makes an attempt to adds layers to this character, establishing that some of his worst qualities come from having grown up with a bigoted and unaffectionate mother and maintaining that Willoughby sees Dixon as a good man deep inside (what leads him to think this, we never find out). The disinterest the film shows in engaging with the prejudices that Mildred may or may not hold extends to Dixon who becomes more central to the story around the half-way point and, even when he experiences a reckoning, it doesn’t happen in a way that challenges his bigotry. While I don’t agree that he is supposed to have redeemed himself by the end, there does seem to be a sense that his past transgressions such as the racially-motivated torture (we never actually meet the victim in question) do not ultimately matter. In fact the few characters we meet who fall victim to these prejudices (Amanda Warren and Darrell Brit-Gibson play the only two black residents of Ebbing we get to meet and Peter Dinklage plays the dwarf who has a soft spot for Mildred) barely amount to characters in their own right. I wouldn’t go so far to say that a hate-filled man like Dixon is incapable of redemption, but he doesn’t get to earn that redemption if the movie cannot muster the same level of empathy for his victims.
I got the sense that McDonagh was ultimately trying to tell a story about justice and retribution in a more spiritual than political sense, but his mistake was picking a setting that was completely alien to what he knows and tackling so many different hot-button issues that he didn’t have enough time to portray any of them adequately. The movie is about sexual violence, then it’s about police brutality, then it’s about miscarriages of justice, domestic abuse, racism, public defamation, and (in one scene) the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the child molestation scandal. I’m willing to believe the McDonagh did not intend to marginalise the suffering of people of colour in order to humanise a white man, but with a plot this overstuffed the unavoidable result is that something is going to be side-lined or trivialised, and in this case it ended up being matters of race. The missteps in this film’s handling of its subject matter can probably be attributed to McDonagh’s Irish origins. It’s quite clear that he chose this setting without fully understanding or appreciating its history of racial tension and it has seriously backfired on him. Maybe if the story had been set elsewhere (Three Billboards Outside of Galway?) it might have worked, but what we got instead was a misguided mess.