Gray Matter

Movie Review – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Directed by Martin McDonagh

Starring Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Peter Dinklage


Against the backdrop of politically correct extremism that’s slowly strangling American culture, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri arrives on the movie scene with mighty, mighty cujones and a scathing vision of small-town America. Writer/Director McDonagh, the esteemed Irish playwright best known to American audiences as the creator of the 2008 crime drama In Bruges, has created, despite his European origins, a uniquely American film. Three Billboards is an unflinching, often hilarious dark comedy about obsession and pig-headedness in the face of cold truths. It deals with fire-hot topics like racism, the justice system and vigilantism. Its characters are complicated and stained, its heroine angry and ruthless, almost to the point of insanity. And the movie refuses to coddle those who prefer their controversial subjects wrapped in tidy little packages where open-mindedness and wisdom ultimately reign and the protagonists are righteous in their struggle.

The struggle of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is certainly compelling. Angry and heartbroken that eight months have passed since the brutal rape and murder of her daughter without so much as a word from the local sheriff’s department, Mildred plots to bring the case back to public attention. She rents three billboards on a little used road outside of town:

“Raped While Dying,”
“And Still No Arrests?”
“How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

Per Mildred’s plans, the billboards inflame the town, most notably Chief Willoughby himself (Woody Harrelson), who feels unfairly maligned, and his simple-minded, racist police officer (Sam Rockwell) who’s angrily determined to put an end to the embarrassment.

It’s easy to sympathize with Mildred. Losing a child is the unspeakable sorrow that all parents dread. Her weathered face bears the emotional scars of her tragedy, and her every word seems subtly deadened by grief. But Mildred’s righteous indignation is tainted by unchecked anger. She’s no saint and Three Billboards is no Lifetime movie about a virtuous woman heroically defying the system. Mildred doesn’t want justice, she wants revenge.

She lashes out at others, sometimes violently, and with little provocation, viciously attacking the town dentist with his own drill and later going full-on terrorist in a brutal act of revenge. And she pursues her plot oblivious to the feelings of others, never even considering the billboard’s effect on her equally traumatized son and behaving rudely to her good-guy dinner date (the wonderful Peter Dinklage). Her blaming of Willoughby is misdirected. She won’t acknowledge the rule of law that binds him and has little use for concepts like lack of evidence and constitutional liberty. McDormand, whose career is a showcase of great films, many directed by her husband Joel Cohen, and brilliant performances, most notably her Oscar winning turn in the Cohen brothers classic Fargo, embodies Mildred’s every nuance with ferocious intensity. There’s a look to her, a slight pursing of the lips, that somehow seems poignant, but her vengeful stare is frightening.

McDonagh’s fictitious Missouri town acts as a stand-in for Trump’s America. And Mildred’s rage illustrates how such a tragedy came to pass. Her feelings of frustration and disenfranchisement are valid, but, like Trump voters who completely gave up on the system by voting for a political iconoclast, Mildred also responds by throwing out the baby with the bathwater, abandoning the law completely.

Officer Dixon, the racist cop, humiliated by the disrespect for his boss and his department and shamed by his inability to solve the crime, is similarly obsessed. He’s determined to bring the billboards down to the point of harassing and later brutally attacking the young clerk who rented the Billboards to Mildred. Dixon is the film’s most troubling and controversial character. His actions and beliefs are repulsive. A previous incident in which he brutally beat a black man is well-known throughout the town. We see the origins of his behavior in his relationship with his dominating mother. She’s so stupid, you almost feel sorry for him. Indeed Dixon, as portrayed by Sam Rockwell, is at times amiable in his ignorance. But he’s a man out of control. He moves from funny to scary in a matter of seconds. It’s a complicated performance, both hilarious and chilling, and one of the very best of a fine career.

The one semblance of sanity is Chief Willoughby (the enjoyable and compelling Woody Harrelson). A traditional family man who’s dying of cancer, he’s a good natured good-ol’-boy and a gentle soul. But his calm demeanor and rational arguments carry little sway with Mildred. She’s blind to his point of view. And Willoughby too is flawed. He’s a coward of convenience. He refuses to take a stand against Mildred’s violent acts and can only summon gentle admonitions against Dixon’s racial stupidities in a suicide note to the officer.

It would have been so easy to turn these three characters in to archetypes – the virtuous grizzly mama, the evil racist, the heroic sheriff. But real life doesn’t exist in simple black and white, nor do people. The man in the white hat may be cheating on his wife and the man in black may do charity work on weekends. Human beings occupy the great gray moral void and trying to paint them in simpler strokes is dishonest. The film doesn’t moralize about their behavior because it doesn’t have to. Those who criticize it for refusing to take a narrative stand against racism have missed the point. The filmmaker’s voice is determined by what he or she shows us. The fact that we see this behavior portrayed, is itself evidence of the filmmaker’s point of view. If it were intended to be a whitewash, we wouldn’t see it in the first place. But some people need their movie’s views spelled out for them. The division between good and evil must be clearly defined. This kind of logic usually results in the type of phony, “socially progressive” Hollywood movies that play like dramatized PSA’s.

Those who condemn the humanizing of Officer Dixon engage in dangerous thinking. When we refuse to see the humanity of those who do evil things, we are denying the duality of human nature and the presence of both good and evil in all of us. When we dehumanize them, we are guilty of the very same sin they are. This kind of thinking is also death to adult drama. It forces writers to create characters who are essentially false, who serve merely as ideals and not fleshed-out human beings.

Some have seen Mildred’s alliance with Dixon, at the film’s conclusion, as a stamp of approval for Dixon and his actions. The flaw in this logic is that although Mildred is the film’s protagonist, she’s as dangerous and morally questionable in her own way as Dixon is. An alliance with her doesn’t signal the approval of anything other than misdirected rage. They are two peas in the same violent pod.

Further stirring up the controversy, McDonagh calls BS on the idea that anyone who uses a certain word, regardless of context, is irredeemably bad. Mildred mocks Dixon’s racism by using the “N” word in irony. Some will only hear the word and not the intent. Three Billboards dares to suggest that a white person can use that word without being a racist and that a person can be racist and not say the word (Dixon to my memory never uses it in the film.) Mcdonagh knows this will be controversial, slyly referencing the idea with two brief shots of Mildred’s son (Lucas Hedges) reading Flannery O’Connor, the brilliant anti-racist Southern Gothic author who, like Mark Twain, has been unfairly accused of racism by the uninformed self-righteous because her racist characters spoke like racists. Some people have no room in their hearts, or minds, for messy dualities, but McDonagh’s film works precisely because it doesn’t preach.

Despite its dark vision of American justice, Three Billboards is a comedy, often a very funny one. There’s humor in all the foolishness, but the laughs are tempered by a sobering cynicism. “One day you’re gonna have to face the deep dark truthful mirror,” Elvis Costello once sang. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO holds that mirror up to a broken America to reveal some painful truths. You may not like them, but they remain truths nonetheless.

Rating: 93/100