I am conflicted about Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. There are moments of great acting and daring, emotional honesty, and complexity. Amid all the greatness there is a striking obtuseness, or at the very least a willful ignorance, that hovers over the movie like a cloud. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is at its heart about how hate and grief can act as a poison and how forgiveness and love can act as an antidote or salve…for white people.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is grieving over the rape and death of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton). After months of her daughter’s death going unsolved, she is hit by inspiration. She rents the three billboards outside of town. Mildred puts up a message antagonizing Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into action. Willoughby is wrestling with his own problems; he’s dying of pancreatic cancer.
McDonagh’s trying to illustrate the argument against the idea of ‘bad words.’ People may say bad things but does that make them bad people? He’s exploring the notion that people might be more than the sum of the things they say. For instance, when Mildred is being interrogated by Willoughby she mentions one of his deputies Dixon (Sam Rockwell). A deputy she has just called out for being racist by using a racial slur herself. When she asks Willoughby why he keeps Dixon around he smiles. “If you got rid of every cop with vaguely racist tendencies you’d only have…three people left on the force.” He smiles. “But then they’d have trouble with the f*gs.” *
There is a frustration with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. Scenes like the one above while flawed have moments of great humanity such as when Willoughby coughs up blood. The antagonism between the two vanishes and is replaced with compassion and worry for a fellow human being.
When Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) comes to her house to berate her for the billboards the two fall into an argument. It’s heavily hinted throughout the movie that Charlie was abusive. Something that becomes painfully clear as the two argue, and Charlie grabs Mildred by the neck and holds her against the wall. Their son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) grabs a knife and holds it to his father’s throat. It’s a tense scene that is diffused by Charlie’s nineteen-year-old girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving) wanting to use the bathroom.
What follows is tragic as it is honest. Mildred, Charlie, and Robbie break from each other and begin to clean up. Charlie tells Mildred “Those billboards won’t bring her back.” Mildred nods. “Neither will fucking nineteen-year-olds.” Charlie agrees. “Yeah. But I understand that.”
McDonagh understands how easily tempers may flare and how we say things we may regret. The argument between Angela and Mildred revealed to us in flashback is heartbreaking because we know this is the last time the two will ever speak. He understands the power of words and how they wound. Mildred’s last words to Angela are unbearably cruel, and her regret for saying them wounds her to her core.
The character of Dixon is particularly troubling. He has a redemptive arc that might have been truly powerful, but its impact is mooted by McDonagh’s pathetic lack of awareness. Dixon is a deputy who is said to have ‘tortured black folk’ and someone who when local black townspeople see him cross the road. McDonagh undercuts his hatred by showing us what an utter idiot he is.
Dixon is the redneck caricature. He lives at home with his mother Mama Dixon (Sandy Martin), is perpetually drunk, reads children’s comics and of course harasses the local black people, sometimes even violently beating them. McDonagh never shows us the horrors of Dixon’s actions. No, that would hamper his redemptive arc. The one act of violence we see him commit is against a white man, Red (Caleb Landry Jones). Fitting it is Red who he apologizes to and is forgiven by.
Dixon’s redemption requires nothing from Dixon regarding him coming to terms with the pain and agony he’s caused within the black community. Had McDonagh actually cared about any of the feelings and thoughts of anyone who wasn’t white, or straight, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri might have had more bite. Unfortunately the black characters in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri rate somewhere between scene dressing and plot devices.
Of the three black characters in the movie, only one has any real meaningful role. The new chief Abercrombie (Clarke Peters) sees Dixon beat Red and demands his gun and badge. Abercrombie exists to fire Dixon; to start him on his redemption. He will pop up from time to time throughout the film but firing Dixon is the most consequential act of his existence in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
When Willoughby is repeatedly asked why he keeps Dixon on the force he shrugs, “Because deep down inside he’s a good man.” This is true for all of us, but that hardly warrants the inaction of the Ebbing police force. Good man or not Dixon needs to either be kicked off the force, investigated, ordered to therapy, or all of the above. Dixon, or McDonagh, never once acknowledges his footprint that he’s left in the black community of Ebbing.
Despite all of this there are moments of great and powerful emotion. This is because despite his faults McDonagh is not untalented. He has crafted wonderful, engaging characters, albeit white ones. He’s helped by an almost insanely jam-packed bench of character actors.
Frances McDormand’s Mildred is a near perfect creation. A foul-mouthed, grieving, terrified, angry, cantankerous woman who is incapable of suffering anyone, much less fools. McDormand is one the best actresses working today and despite everything I’ve said about the film if you do see it, see it for her. She is quite simply outstanding. She has a scene in which she talks to a deer as if it were her daughter and it might just be one of the best scenes of the year.
Mildred is a strong independent complex character. She is also the only strong woman independent character. There are, by my count, four other women in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But they are ‘also’ characters. Here is Willoughby, also his wife, Anne (Abbie Cornish). Charlie comes to visit Mildred, also with him is Penelope.
There is not a bad performance in the whole line up. Rockwell turns in an especially nuanced performance. He has a scene in the bathroom with another deputy played brilliantly by Zeljko Ivanek. They mourn the loss of a friend that while not erasing his sins reminds us of Dixon’s humanity.
All of them though are hobbled by McDonagh’s half-baked misguided attempt at a social conscience. Bigotry and hatred are hard to fight because they make no rational sense. Its why we so often resort to saccharin mawkish sentiments like “Choose love,” or “Love conquers all.” It’s the only real thing that seems to work. But McDonagh is so busy trying to show us our own fallacies he forgets his own. The slurs and epithets feel more like a pseudo-intellectual white writer gleefully trying to get away with saying ‘bad words’ and acting edgy while he does it.
There is great pathos and insight to the human condition buried deep inside Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. There’s also a lot of crap to wade through as well as some toxic baggage to unpack. The movie’s heart is in the right place, but its head is firmly up its own ass.
*Quote was censored for a slur.