Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017): Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring: Francis McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, and, of course, Željko Ivanek. Running Time: 115 minutes.
**this review contains assorted spoilers for In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and Three Billboards**
Every year there seems to be at least one solidly good, if flawed, movie that ends up getting hyped just a bit too much come awards season, prompting a backlash from those insisting that the film isn’t that good, or is actually terrible, and then a backlash to the backlash, and on and on. Meanwhile, the heated arguments move so far beyond the starting point that the film itself ends up completely forgotten and left in the dust. Some of these films do deserve such treatment (looking at you, Crash), but many do not, and much to my disappointment, this year the anvil has fallen on one of my all-time favorite writers.
Martin McDonagh is an Irish playwright who, after solidly establishing himself as one of the most celebrated playwrights in Irish history, began making forays into films with his 2004 live-action short Six Shooter, which eventually won an Oscar, and followed up with his first feature-length films, In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). After a long hiatus to work on his latest play, he returned this year with Three Billboards, and for the first time has seen a movie of his become a serious awards darling, winning big at the Golden Globes and entering the Oscars a heavy favorite in many of the major categories. This despite the fact that it is not one of his better films. Like with Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese before him, I’m happy to see him get accolades, but can’t help wishing it were for one of his earlier, better works.
Three Billboards tackles a lot- a LOT- of subject matters, but first and foremost it’s the story of Mildred (Francis McDormand), a middle-aged, divorced mother growing increasingly bitter and angry at the inability of the local police force to make any progress in solving the rape-and-murder case of her daughter. Determined to push Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) any way she can, she rents out three abandoned billboards on the road near her house, posting a series of messages on them deliberately meant to provoke as strong a reaction as possible from both the police force and the town as a whole.
This provokes a whole series of events, many darkly comic, many just sad, involving a nerdy ad manager, a trigger-happy cop played by Sam Rockwell, a cancer subplot, arson, domestic violence, and more. The movie is very well-shot and superbly well-acted (Lucas Hedges, playing Mildred’s son, has not been getting enough praise for his small but crucial role), but the story and many of the intended characters arcs ultimately fail to connect in all the ways they’re clearly supposed to. McDonagh’s best movie remains In Bruges, where both the characters and the world they occupy are so perfectly fitted to one another that, at the end of it, you realize the story could not possibly have played out any other way. His most transcendent work remains his 2003 play The Pillowman, where the characters and world are just vague enough that it could be set anytime and anywhere. Three Billboards falls well short of both heights, and a clear part of this lies with how its narrative develops. Specifically, with how unbelievably circular much of the plot ends up being.
See, usually the realm of the stage is that of the circular plot, where characters and props and story points all come around by the end to connect to each other. Each characters will eventually be (or always were) bound to the others in highly coincidental ways. While regularly excused in theater, this conceit is usually disdained (or at least hidden as well as possible) in movies due to its clear artifice, but with In Bruges, McDonagh made one of the rare great films where this circularity is stunningly effective. This is mostly thanks to how well the film’s setting evokes a fairytale atmosphere in both a dreamlike and nightmarish sense. Three Billboards utilizes this same approach- most obviously in cases like the choice of a hospital bed, the identity of an arsonist, even a tease about who the rapist might be- but to noticeably less effect. Here again, I can’t help but feel the setting is the cause of this. Bruges feels like exactly the sort of place where the streets fill up with fog every night, and where you’d never feel surprised to meet the same cast of characters on every street corner, where life, hate, and love repeat themselves endlessly. In the flatlands and open spaces of a Midwestern American town, less so.
This could maybe have worked better had the movie carried more similarities in tone and mood to McDonagh’s other major film, Seven Psychopaths. While that film is also filled with one remarkable coincidence after another, it’s a movie more focused on deconstructing itself than telling a story, so worrying about problems or inconsistencies of plot or characters is just about pointless. Three Billboards, by contrast, is clearly striving to tell a good, straight story about interesting characters, and has to be judged on those merits.
Narrative issues aside, let’s dive into where the real heated stuff about the film lies. Like purveyors of Fox News, we all know what we’re really here for; the hot, spicy racism. There are two main thrusts of criticism of the film that have taken shape; that it unsuccessfully (and say callously) tries to be a movie “about” racism and police brutality, and that it’s a movie that redeems (or excuses, or “explains”) the racism of its most hateful and bigoted character, Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon.
The fact that the movie does clearly try to at least include racism and police brutality as major themes is its biggest weakness. We are given a sense that the town is a racially-mixed place with a very Ferguson-like history of animosity between the police and the town’s minority communities. Yet we only really have three characters of color in the whole film, two of whom are there solely to appear on-screen, comment on the police, and then in one case literally be “disappeared” for most of the rest of the film. The third character, a black police officer appearing late in the game to assist in Mildred’s case, might have been intended as a balance to this, and to give the police some shading as well, but here too he isn’t around nearly enough to make a big enough impact. This isn’t to say that McDonagh can’t or shouldn’t tackle racism, but as a particularly memorable scene from In Bruges shows, he’s much better at approaching it as a white man poking fun at other white men for the absurdity of their bigotry. His efforts here to use black characters solely for this purpose feels off, even within the context of the film, and I understand why this was a key breaking point for many viewers.
The question of whether or not Officer Dixon is “redeemed” by the end of the film is a bit trickier. Over the course of his career, McDonagh has created some of the most hateful, pessimistic, cynical, violent, and cruel characters imaginable, with many of his stories centering around how the particular cruelty of various characters lead to endless cycles of violence, injury, and recrimination. Very few of his works end with anything approaching redemption or salvation, but his best works do at least allow moments of genuine love and/or tenderness to shine through the darkness. Here again, In Bruges and The Pillowman stand out especially well, another reason why they’re his best works. Three Billboards clearly wants to have moments like this- there are a lot of scenes that try to let the characters’ inner softness or goodness peak out- but their effectiveness is much more mixed.
In regards to Officer Dixon, then, can we say his character is redeemed by the end? I would argue he isn’t. McDonagh himself is on the record saying he doesn’t see Dixon as redeemed, nor did he try to write that in as part of the script. There is, of course, the infamous “letter scene” where a letter from Chief Willoughby insists that Dixon is only as hateful as he is because he’s “had a hard life” and he’s really “a good person, deep down.” This moment is one of the film’s bigger clunkers, for a number of reasons, but even here I don’t think this was intended as a sort of absolution for Dixon- it could simply be a very dark joke meant to show that Willoughby was wrong, dead wrong, about Dixon the whole time, and every minute he spent defending him was wasted breath. It wouldn’t be the first time McDonagh designed a character’s death to be a horribly misguided attempt to save people beyond saving. That the scene could be misinterpreted as a saving grace moment for the character lies, then, less with the explicit intention and more in a failure of execution.
One of the more interesting interpretations I’ve read about the film is that, in fact, no one is saved, and both the main characters are irredeemably twisted by the end. The movie ends with Dixon and Mildred in a car, contemplating murdering a man unconnected to the crime at hand, and unsure of whether or not they will actually go through with it. This I find to be a rather fitting way to end, because, for all the justification behind Mildred’s anger, it’s hard to escape feeling that she’s let it twist itself into something far darker. She has suffered, yes, but can that excuse the suffering she metes out to others, sometimes at random? Her daughter is gone, but her son is still there. He pleads with her time and again to change her behavior, trying to make her see the ways her mini-war on Chief Willoughby is making his life harder, but not once do we see her pause to consider this. Maybe she and Dixon have both fallen beyond saving, and those who think otherwise are just fooling themselves.
Perhaps, in the end, the movie just handicaps itself by biting off too much in trying to handle racism and police brutality on top of its central story. If it were more tightly focused on a single woman’s search for justice and anger over the inefficiencies of the justice system, we likely would have had a much stronger film that would never have prompted such controversy to begin with. Violent crime against women going aggravatingly unpunished is very much a real issue that movies can and should tackle. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of artists and filmmakers more than able to tackle both that and other issues like racism within the same film- there most certainly are- but McDonagh isn’t one of them, at least not yet.
Three Billboards is a good movie, solid in a lot of ways, but too uneven to count as a great film. And while I have been an avid fan of McDonagh’s for a long time and would love to see a film of his dominate the Oscars one day, this isn’t the film that should.