There are better movies in 2017 than Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but no performance this year has felt more rawly resonant than Frances McDormand’s turn as its caustic heroine, Mildred Hayes. You could put Mildred on a t-shirt, layering her scowling face over selected quotes from the ever-growing mountain of inadequate apologies from disgraced men. You could make her into a meme: Here’s Mildred in the pair of no-fucks-to-give coveralls she wears everywhere, except to bed, as she firebombs government buildings, kicks sniggering high schoolers in the crotch, and takes out a series of unignorable ads about how the rape and murder of her teenage daughter remains unsolved.
Mildred, who McDormand plays with a resplendent wrath and heartsick grief, is perfectly positioned to be the fictional patron saint of our current cultural moment. She is a woman who refuses to let the act of brutal sexual violence that tore her family apart be forgotten, to let it slide into the realm of regrettable but normalized tragedy. She insists on writing what happened in 20-foot-high type: “RAPED WHILE DYING. STILL NO ARRESTS. HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” Her singularly feminine rage glows so brightly that you could hold your hands up to the screen and warm yourself by its furious glow. Anger is destroying her life, but it’s also liberated her in a way that — on the heels of the first year of the Trump presidency and the continuing, Weinstein-fueled revelations of harassment and assault — is incredibly cathartic.
McDonagh, who wrote the part of Mildred eight years ago with McDormand in mind, has stumbled into something that reverberates deeply with 2017’s discourse about sexism — a tale of a small-town crime and cops that gets at what happens when a society runs out of patience for female pain. But while Three Billboards gets at something bitterly real in showing the turn that takes place when a woman’s outrage becomes genuinely inconvenient for the powers that be, there’s a less laudable way in which it also feels timely. The film tells the story of a woman pushing back against the ingrained misogyny of her town, and props it up with a remarkably lukewarm treatment of anti-black police brutality. Three Billboards is so sharp when it comes to depicting Mildred’s pain, and yet so clumsy when it comes to depicting the habitual racism of the place in which she lives, that it feels indicative of the terrible fallacy that we can only focus on one type of oppression at once.
If an inadvertent side effect of “the reckoning” over sexual harassment and assault has, in fact, been that a conversation about gender has in some ways subsumed that of race (or, as Jay Z put it while addressing a young fan who’s surely going to have to deal with both, “at this very moment America is way more sexist than they are racist”), then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the film of a moment in more ways than one. It forces you, as a viewer, to decide whether its desultory treatment of the black characters on the movie’s sidelines is worth tolerating in exchange for the satisfaction of its protagonist’s burn-it-all-to-the-ground fury.
What the film gets right on all fronts is how power protects itself, via active threats but also through the unspoken push to maintain the status quo, to yield to the welfare of “good men.” That’s a very loaded term in the movie. Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the head of the Ebbing police department and the person named on Mildred’s billboards, is a “good man,” as Mildred is reminded by her priest, and by the dentist who then tries to remove one of her teeth without anesthetic, and by Willoughby’s threatening cop colleagues.
Based on what we see of the sheriff, the beloved boss and married father of two girls has a sardonic sense of humor and is likable enough, even if he’s not a candidate for sainthood. Willoughby also has terminal cancer, which gives him a grim emotional advantage over Mildred in the war she instigates. Her daughter is dead and gone, whereas Willoughby is actively dying. The film portrays, with painful precision, how little Mildred needs to do to lose the town’s support, even as the mother of a murdered child. Their sympathies instinctively turn toward the prominent family man, the cop whose job it is to keep the peace (while turning a blind eye toward the occasional act of brutality committed by his employees).
The pressure to keep quiet about sexual misconduct and violence isn’t just about protecting perpetrators; it’s about not rocking the boat, not disrupting the structures that “good” folks benefit from the most, regardless of whether they’re abusers themselves or blithely oblivious. It’s not like the Ebbing community doesn’t know exactly what happened to Mildred’s daughter or considers it anything other than monstrous. But they’re also writing off the crime as a deplorable but occasional consequence of living in the world — women get raped and murdered, especially when they go out alone. What can you do?
The only move Mildred feels she has, as time passes and attention fades, is to place a series of giant ads on a local road that offer a reminder in stark, clear terms. It’s a revelation that comes with a price — not just because she can’t really afford the signs, but because she’s also reopening old wounds. She has to look at the billboards every day on her ride home; she can see them from her house. They are, in bright red with black text against the big blue sky, the movie’s second most eloquent image, after McDormand’s clenched jaw. They’re how her high school–aged son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) learns the details of his sister’s death, which he’d been trying to avoid.
When Mildred takes out those ads, she also breaks an unspoken rule regarding who gets to speak out and who should be held accountable. Willoughby isn’t the man who assaulted and murdered Mildred’s daughter. But, as Mildred rightfully points out, the buck stops with him, as he’s the guy in charge. Yet this inconvenient truth causes everyone in town to recoil, her tragedy apparently only worthy of compassion until it threatens a prominent man. The ways in which the people of Ebbing form a protective layer around Willoughby provides an all-too-familiar demonstration of who instinctively gets public sympathy and how sexual violence gets smoothed over.
Mildred’s choices are not those of a “good woman,” who’d presumably retreat from view, accepting the fate of her daughter as just a sad but unavoidable casualty. But being “good,” in the film’s parlance, doesn’t seem to be available to Mildred in the same way it is to some of Ebbing’s men. It seems to have nothing to do with kindness or moral forthrightness and everything to do with who deserves to be given second and third and fourth chances, and who gets shielded from consequences.
Mildred’s ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), was presumably also “good.” He’s a cop, and he used to abuse her, and in the one flashback in which we see Mildred’s dead daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) alive, the girl spits at her mother in the midst of an argument that “we’ve only got your word” on whether the beatings really happened. So Mildred has intimate experience with a “good” man and how his word gets taken over yours — even by your own kid — because his reality is more convenient. It makes the incensed act that kicks off the film all the more powerful because it’s clearly a kamikaze move: the act of someone who knows that what she’s doing will likely cost her her place in the community, and doesn’t care.
The fictional Ebbing, Mo., is a setting that’s far afield for Martin McDonagh, who was born in London to Irish parents, and who was a four-time Tony-nominated playwright before he ventured into film (you can hear that in his dialogue, which is dense and determined to dazzle, sometimes at the expense of the characters tasked with delivering it). His 2008 directorial debut In Bruges was about Irish hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) trading profanely philosophical barbs while hiding out in a historical Belgian town. His self-referential 2012 follow-up Seven Psychopaths was set in the US, but had Farrell back as another Irishman, this time struggling to write a screenplay in Hollywood.
But the characters in Three Billboards aren’t visitors or transplants. They’re spending their whole lives in Ebbing, and while the town may not be real, that area of the US certainly is. And Ebbing happens to be located in the same state where, three years ago, protests against police violence fueled an ongoing social movement after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
In striving to make Ebbing feel like a lived-in place, rather than just an idea of one, Three Billboards treats racism like it’s just another quaint regional detail — part of the local decor. Here’s the gift shop, here’s the bar, and here’s Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a violent, openly intolerant alcoholic who’s rumored to have tortured a black man in his custody. That’s a claim the other characters don’t deny so much as they defend on the basis of a lack of evidence. Dixon also gets declared a “good man,” if there’s any question of how little the term has to do with moral quality and how much it has to do with how many chances someone is given. Even Mildred herself is let off the hook for an assault she’s definitely committed. Dixon instead arrests Mildred’s black friend and coworker Denise (Amanda Warren) for possession, to use her as leverage (seemingly her only function in the movie). His colleague congratulates him for coming up with the idea.
Dixon’s behavior, and the way it’s tolerated by others, is depicted with a matter-of-factness that’s striking — but not nearly as striking as the disinterest the film has in actually engaging with that racism. It’s a disinterest that becomes clearer as Dixon becomes increasingly central to the last act of the movie, eventually starting to reckon with his anger and his brutality, but never with his bigotry. He doesn’t exactly end up redeemed, but while his character gets deepened and complicated and made miserable, there’s no further discussion of his horrifying past.
Rockwell, who leans mesmerizingly into the character’s sloppy self-loathing, has been getting Oscar talk since Three Billboard‘s premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September. But as the movie has started to play to national audiences, the glowing critical acclaim it’s racked up has been countered by other writers wondering why its flippancy — not just about racism, but about racist police brutality — hasn’t gotten the same attention as its acting has. In letting Dixon’s attitude skate by unchallenged, the film doesn’t just turn a vague Darren Wilson figure into this sad clown. Instead, like the New York Times’ much-criticized Nazi-next-door piece, it humanizes a hate-filled man without offering anything close to the same empathy to the people on the receiving end of that hate.
McDonagh certainly finds proximity to prejudice useful, at least in his Tarantino-esque tendency to pepper his dialogue with slurs in order to take advantage of their transgressive heft. When Mildred taunts Dixon, she drops the n-word in her description of his history of violence, and it feels like it’s there more so that McDonagh can try the term out than to give Dixon a chance to retort that “It’s ‘persons of color’-torturing business, these days, if you want to know.”
“Retard,” “faggot,” “midget” (aimed at a longsuffering local played by Peter Dinklage, who infuses the part with a poignant dignity) — Three Billboards is peopled with characters who’d use these words without thinking twice. But McDonagh doesn’t seem to have more than an abstract understanding of the impact this speech or the contemptuousness that spawned it can have. The word “cunt,” on the other hand, becomes the spine of an intensely bittersweet set of scenes involving Mildred’s relationship with her murdered daughter and living son. McDonagh seems to have no trouble comprehending that insult and the residual sting it carries, but he doesn’t get why putting an air-quotes n-word in his heroine’s mouth evokes the wrong kind of flinch. He has a solid grasp of how a woman can be dismissed as crazy, as a bitch. But when it comes to American racism, he’s playing tourist.
Three Billboards‘ failures of intersectionality do as much to make it a fitting capper for this year as its incendiary female ire. It’s a year that started with a presidential inauguration that was, to many, an admission of misogyny writ on a scale larger than any billboard.The election that led to that was (and still is being) messily re-litigated by different factions of the left, each intent on deciding which demographic failed to show up, or showed up in the wrong way. The marches that followed were energizing — women united in a show of force and solidarity! Except for the participants of color who struggled to feel welcome. This year’s highest profile feminist fare in pop culture has been rolled out with much fanfare but little diversity, from the action-heavy but comfortably fantastical Wonder Woman to the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale, whose scariness was matched only by how unconvincing its blithe post-racialism felt.
And then there was Harvey Weinstein, who didn’t exclusively prey on white women, but whose downfall, it’s hard not to feel, came about because of just how many famous white women had the courage to speak out against him. Sexual harassment and assault aren’t experiences unique to white women in any sense, but it is apparently white women against whom it counts the most, and who have become the face of those fighting back against it. They’ve embraced public displays of anger in thrilling ways — like Uma Thurman, whose measured seething in an October Access Hollywood video went viral. At that moment, she could have been a sister in formalwear to Mildred, both of them ready to burn everything down. But while that is a rage that’s exhilarating to witness, it’s a rage that’s not available to everyone. Just as not everyone in Ebbing can claim the protection of being considering “good,” we still don’t live in a world where everyone gets to be angry. ●
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