Three Billboards

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

MPAA Rating: R | Rating:
Release year: 2017
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama Director: Martin McDonagh

At some point, I bet you’ve been in a conversation with a person who made a crass or racist comment, one which was inappropriate, offensive, or even hateful. In response to the incredulous stares or angry reactions at the comment, this person opens their arms in apparent surrender, a sheepish-yet-smug look on their face, and says something like, “What? I was only joking. You’re being too sensitive.” They may mutter something about how “Everything is so P.C.” these days, or how folks don’t appreciate dark comedy. Perhaps this person is a family member or co-worker, someone you find yourself around in social situations on a regular basis. Perhaps this is life-draining for you due this person’s tone-deaf lack of self-awareness, not to mention their inability to empathize or understand others around them.

Watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is like spending two hours with that tone-deaf jerk without the ability to have a fruitful dialogue or relationship–you can only listen to their offensive monologue without being able to respond. Even if their arguments are eloquent or passionate, it’s exhausting (at best) and infuriating (at worst). Director and writer Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) has some Important Things to Say; he’s written the message in all caps and with plenty of f*cks to get our attention.

These f*cks spew forth from Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) with bitter vitriol. She’s made a permanent dwelling in the “Anger” stage of the Kubler-Ross grief cycle following the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. As a few months have gone by without a culprit, Mildred wants to send a message to the local police department, particularly chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). She pays a local advertisement agency for the titular three billboards, which send a direct message to the chief in the form of two questions: “Raped while dying and still no arrests? How come, Chief Willboughby?” One could read this as a public lament were it not the attitude and subsequent actions which come from Mildred, who is set on kicking the hornet’s nest. McDormand’s performance is fierce and vicious, albeit not particularly complex. Her character has the subtlety, complexity, and charm of a middle finger. She was an angry, isolated, bitter person before her daughter died; she adds “violent” and “malicious” to those traits over the course of the film.

Her counterparts are Willboughby and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), two good ol’ boy Southern police officers. The beloved chief is dying of cancer, hence the controversy behind the billboards. More offended by Mildred than Willboughby is Dixon, a violent, ignorant reprobate who is introduced as having tortured a black man in custody and gotten away with it. “He’s a good cop,” Willboughby tells an unnamed associate (Zeljko Ivanek), and perhaps this is what McDonagh is aiming for. Even racist, violent police officers are human beings; some can even have pretty Australian wives and get cancer. McDonagh frames these characters with a sense of sympathy–we are meant to empathize with them even as they continue to do morally reprehensible things. A critical choice Willboughby makes midway through the film is portrayed in such a way as to not only excuse it, but perhaps to make it seem laudable or heroic, even redemptive (particularly for Dixon). Later in the film, Dixon throws the billboard advertisement manager Red (Caleb Landry Jones) out a window and beats him bloody in the street. Dixon is not arrested or charged, or even really reprimanded for his actions; indeed, he never addresses, nor shows remorse, nor is held accountable for his violent behavior and racist beliefs. That Rockwell manages to elicit some sense of sympathy for Dixon shows just how wonderful of an actor he is. I’m afraid he’ll win an Oscar for his performance here when he’s done so much better elsewhere (Moon, The Way Way Back). Same with McDormand and Harrelson; these are fantastic actors whose performances elevate the material enough that it may cause audiences to miss the atrocities this film commits.

If I’m reading this film correctly, its foundational message is this: racism isn’t so big a problem that suicide, vengeful murder, and a few laughs can’t solve it. Note how Three Billboards portrays and views people of color, and black people in particular. McDonagh may be attempting to speak to American racial tensions here, but the form in which he does this is entirely through focusing on racist white people not actually come to terms with their prejudice, then using black characters as tools to witness the (false) redemption of his white protagonists. Note also how the film treats women, who are repeatedly battered and abused, often for the sake of attempted humor. Peter Dinklage, a phenomenal actor, seems to be present only so McDonagh can make a few “midget” jokes. Finally, note how the film portrays justice and redemption–what does it mean to be good in this world of Three Billboards? Where has it led us with Mildred and Dixon? Do they have character arcs? I suggest they have character spirals, circling further into the depths of human depravity while the film frames them in sympathetic terms. Yet even with this sympathy, McDonagh appears to hate his characters. They’re written with broad brush strokes and thin dimensions–like a billboard!–and the “twists” audiences may assume are smartly subversive are mere manipulation and tonal whiplash. Tone deaf and abrasive, McDonagh is more like a cat toying with a mouse than a storyteller guiding an audience, gleefully enjoying the cruelty.

Are bigots beyond redemption? If the gospel of Jesus is true (and I believe it is), then the answer is clear: the grace of Christ extends to and is available for anyone and everyone. No one is outside the reach of salvation; all may be redeemed. There are plenty of bigots in the Bible, and there are plenty of well-crafted films about deeply broken people who experience redemption. Three Billboards is not one of those films. It’s an anti-redemption film, a cynical tale about how, as one 19-year-old mistress once read off a bookmark, anger begets more anger. What Three Billboards suggests is that we’re all bad people; everything is terrible, nothing will get better, so we might as well get a few laughs while we watch it burn. It’s a billboard of a film–shallow, artificial, intrusive, and an offensive eyesore to the cultural landscape.

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