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How Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri Became the Year’s Most Divisive Critical Darling

This is a spoiler-filled discussion of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the current Oscar front-runner and a film that a lot of people have a lot of problems with. 

When I saw Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards last year, I found myself thinking, “This has to be dividing people.” As it turns out, I was correct. I love Martin McDonagh. I have a quote from The Pillowman on my Facebook page and think In Bruges is a tragicomic masterpiece. Seven Psychopaths was less successful but still had enough darkly comic dialogue to warrant a Blu-ray purchase. I even went to New York to see the Daniel Radcliffe-starring production of The Cripple of Inishmaan. However, given the era in which the film was released and the characters it depicts onscreen, Three Billboards was always going to be controversial.

If the film had just gotten good reviews and maybe just garnered some acting awards, it might have felt less problematic. However, its win at the Golden Globes Sunday night for Best Picture- Drama reignited the firestorm that had been building around the film’s acclaim.

I get it. It’s always irritating when a movie you don’t like becomes a critical darling. I wasn’t crazy about Slumdog Millionaire or The Revenant, and I found myself on the defensive side when La La Land was seen as unworthy of its acclaim. If films are a passion, seeing mediocre art rewarded feels like something close to rage-inducing lunacy, and any movie almost unanimously praised will always face some backlash. It’s what the internet is for: think pieces about how something everyone likes isn’t really all that good or how something everyone hates isn’t really all that bad.

The film centers on an angry mother confronting the perceived failings of local police through the titular accusatory billboards. If McDonagh’s previous films have felt a bit too aloof or glib to be truly emotionally involving (a feeling I don’t share but have heard argued), Three Billboards feels raw, with rage, guilt, and grief bursting through every frame.

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I should put out there that I like Three Billboards. When I was first completing my Top Ten List for 2017, I had it at number 10 before I saw A Ghost Story and decided that was a better choice, but I see why it has made others so angry. It’s a film centered on characters whose motives are flawed and irrational, and the final act could be interpreted as a kind of redemption arc it doesn’t earn. Yet, it’s is so admirably angry, full of angry characters unable to deal with the lives they’re forced to live. It’s about angry people doing angry things in an angry fashion. McDonagh didn’t mean to make a film about our current cultural climate, but he captures the underlying resentment and frustration so many feel with the directions they’ve been forced to take and that feeling of powerless to change your circumstances.

The film opens with Mildred Hayes (played with moving ferocity by Frances McDormand) making arrangements to rent the titular billboards near her home. Her teenage daughter, Angela, was found raped and murdered seven months prior, and the investigation has stalled. Reading, “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby,” she hopes they’ll thrust the case back into the spotlight.

In opposition, you have Chief Willoughby (brilliantly played by Woody Harrelson), who feels they’ve done all they can to investigate the murder and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, making the character more compelling than he actually is on the page), who exists in a constant state of retaliatory, explosive rage.

 

At first glance, the film seems to be about an inept, corrupt police squad and the heroic, determined mother demanding justice through unconditional means. However, since it’s Martin McDonagh, motives and characters are far less pure than they first appear, complete with some truly horrific flaws. For starters, it’s easy to empathize with Mildred’s grief and anger over her daughter’s murder. She wants justice and can’t get any sense of closure until someone pays for her daughter’s agony.

However, as Chief Willoughby points out, her billboard accusations aren’t entirely fair. There was no DNA match, no witnesses, and no real evidence to speak of at the crime scene. Short of some lucky break, the case is nearly impossible to solve. It’s easy to side with him because he does have a point. He can’t divine the killer’s identity. He has to follow the evidence, and when leads die out and time passes, there’s not much he can do. Of course, that’s rational and logical, but someone in a constant of angry grief can’t really be assuaged with logic.

Mildred’s also dealing with guilt since the only reason her daughter was out there that night was Mildred wouldn’t let her use the car. A fight resulted that ended with her daughter proclaiming that she hoped she was raped and murdered out there and Mildred saying the same. It’s the sort-of impulsive, unplanned outburst directed towards a teenager that has irritated and angered you in a way only your teenage child can, and it haunts Mildred.

In addition, Mildred is no noble hero. She’s wallowing in grief, barely caring for her surviving son, not thinking about his grief at all.

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Nevertheless, the film makes it pretty clear she may have always been a pretty incapable parent, as flashbacks make it appear as though she was always just barely hanging on. Her quest for justice feels understandable when the film starts but quickly begins to feel like unreasonable obstinacy as the narrative wears on. Our sympathies sour when she doesn’t fit the typical mold of a stereotypical grieving parent. She’s too wrapped up in her own feeling s to even bother caring about how her actions might be hurting others. She is capable of compassion and kindness, but those aren’t her defining attributes. Three Billboards doesn’t have an interest in making you like its protagonist. It would rather see how far it takes before you’re no longer on her side.

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This brings us to Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby, who might really be the film’s emotional center. He’s dying of pancreatic cancer, an open secret in his small town. He just wants some peace in his final days, which Mildred’s billboards are denying him, but he’s not some angry, incompetent authority figure. He’s a loving father and understanding of the actions Mildred’s taken. Harrelson has been having a bit of a career renaissance lately, with strong performances in Edge of Seventeen, The Glass Castle, and War for the Planet of the Apes, and he’s a stellar supporting player here.

There’s this perfectly realized scene in which he is in the process of interrogating Mildred over the assault of a dentist, and he coughs blood into her face. For a moment, her steely resolve shatters and his anger towards her dissipates. He’s horrified his body has betrayed him in that way, and she wants to comfort him and tell him everything’s okay. But it’s short-lived, and they resume their oppositional positions with minimal fanfare. It’s a perfectly realized scene, and indicative of how emotionally arresting Harrelson is in the role. When his character takes his own life, much of the film’s emotional core fades with it.

I think the character that most angers the film’s detractors is Sam Rockwell’s Deputy Jason Dixon, and I think there’s truth to the claim that it doesn’t deal with his character as well as it could. Rockwell is a compelling screen presence, often using his own brand of quirky charisma to make characters far more interesting than they have any right to be (including in McDonagh’s own Seven Psychopaths). Here, though, he’s despicable until the film needs him to be less despicable.  Willoughby tolerates Dixon’s emotional instability and clear racism, but considering all the harm he causes, it’s hard to see why. We do see that Dixon has an equally toxic mother, but we never really understand Willoughby’s faith in such an unstable figure of authority. Later, Dixon attempts to be a better person based on Willoughby’s posthumous words of encouragement, but from everything we see in the film, it’s hard to see why he thinks Dixon has any potential to evolve.

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Dixon’s history involves the torture of an African-American suspect. That never happens onscreen, but it’s verbally referenced repeatedly. We never even see the suspect or learn much about the situation. It’s a bit of backstory dropped into the film and left underdeveloped. The film tries to expand upon the idea that he’s a racist cop by making him simply an angry, emotionally unbalanced cop, taking out his wrath on anyone he feels has slighted him. He’s dangerous and rightly kicked off the force when Willoughby’s replacement, Abercrombie (Clarke Peters) arrives to the site of him hurling a character who has committed no crime out of a window, but Dixon skates through the film relatively consequence-free. He receives cosmic justice, burning inside the police station after Mildred hurls a series of Molotov cocktails through the windows, but no practical consequences. After all, he assaulted a citizen in front of witnesses. Wouldn’t there be some kind of charge brought against him?

Where I disagree with some of the film’s critics involves the description of Dixon as undergoing a redemptive arc. The narrative does start to shift in that direction, with him overhearing someone describing a crime that sounds remarkably like Mildred’s daughter’s murder, allowing himself to be beaten in order of obtaining the person’s DNA, and presenting it to Abercrombie in hopes of solving the murder and possibly getting his job back. He even calls Mildred to give her some hope that she may finally have some closure.

Yet, that’s not what happens. The DNA doesn’t match and they’re back where they started, still hurting and still disgraced. The film ends with the ambiguous promise of Mildred and Dixon carrying out vigilante justice. It’s less redemption than two desperate, reckless individuals who feel they have nothing left to lose. He may be no longer beating up individuals indiscriminately, but I’m not sure if premeditated violence is quite as much of a step up as it’s been made out to be.

Perhaps Dixon feels more problematic because the film has some trouble with its minority characters, dropping them in and barely skims their surfaces. The African-American characters, such as the Mildred’s closest friend, Denise (Amanda Warren) and Abercrombie, are kind but sidelined.

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They exist to prop up the film’s white leads. We see a lot of Dixon’s interior life, but we know nothing about how they feel, with even Denise seeming pretty nonchalant about her recent incarceration. It also uses (or misuses) Peter Dinklage as a character who is completely defined by his dwarfism, and when jokes are made about his size, they’re played for uncomfortable laughs.

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To some extent, this is the nature of film. Every movie has supporting characters and they frequently exist to bounce against the leads (even Mildred’s teenage son, played Lucas Hedges, seems to get lost in the shuffle), but the fact that almost all of the supporting characters are defined by what separates them from the norms of Ebbing can’t help but feel troubling.

The question about the film’s quality comes down to whether or not trying to identify with a racist, emotionally unbalanced cop is a bridge too far. McDonagh doesn’t have any interest in quixotic pursuits of justice or stories of noble heroes taking on and conquering black-hearted villains. He writes in an exclusively morally gray quagmire. Preferring to give us characters who have surface-level traits that trigger a particular emotional response before shading them in a way that makes their worlds more complicated and messy, he’s tackled some material that’s risky and doesn’t always handle it as well as he could. However, since I’ve seen the film, it’s lingered with me. I’ve thought about that haunting ending of damaged, perhaps irredeemably flawed characters taking matters into their own hands because they think it may give their lives some sort of meaning or closure.

If Three Billboards shows us anything, it’s that violence and anger doesn’t really improve anyone’s lives, so they me be continuing to sow the seeds of their own destruction. We don’t know. The movie stops before we ever find out, and the ambiguity leaves us without easy answers. Whether or not the film is loved is almost beside the point, because it doesn’t demand we like its characters. It also deals with larger cultural issues, such as racism and police corruption without really being about them, which is either an unforgivable flaw or admirable approach depending on who you ask.

I know I’m writing this as a white female so my perspective on the film’s thorny issues might be inherently flawed, as well. Maybe I can overlook those issues because they affect me less. That’s a valid point and completely fair. I can only recount how I reacted to the narrative. For me, the film’s strong performances and risk make it flawed, but not one that should be dismissed completely.

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