Martin McDonagh’s 2017 film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is dreadful. The film most likely was written and directed by Charlie Sheen during an on-and-off cocaine binge with production funding and input from Lifetime Movies. However, in this reality, perhaps an inter-dimensional rift opened up, and it ended up at the Academy Awards. Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a tough, working-class woman living in the small town of Ebbing. Her ex-husband, Charlie, played by John Hawkes is an ex-cop. He abused Mildred until she left him, and now he is with a 19 year old named Penelope, played by Samara Weaving. Notably all the (living) women in the film under 25 are portrayed as clueless idiots. Mildred’s daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), gets one horrific scene, where she rebelliously shouts, because she has to walk to town, “I hope I get raped!” I think she also says murdered, but I can’t recall. Mildred responds, “I hope you get raped (and murdered?) too!” I don’t think a mother would say murdered, but then I don’t think a mother would say raped either. Sheen must have been quite high that day, or was he coming down? I digress.
In another moving scene, Mildred, after drilling a hole in the dentist’s thumb, who is angry about her billboards, is brought in for questioning by the police chief, Bill Willoughby, played by a plump Woody Harrelson. Jason Dixon, local cop and town idiot, played by Sam Rockwell, is assigned to watch Mildred while she waits to be questioned. Mildred confronts Dixon about his recently alleged torture and beating of a Black man in custody. She asks, “how is the n***** torturin’ going?” In a scene that should have been edited out, even by Charlie’s — sorry, McDonagh — standards, Dixon stupidly replies, “You can’t say ‘n***** torturin’ now! It’s called Person of Color torturin’!” Really. Yes, in 2017/18 two white characters are allowed to throw around the n-word on screen? (An aside: McDormand’s temporarily stolen Oscar fiasco has resulted in a Black man facing three years in prison) This supposedly radical, yet cringe-worthy, “confrontation” is ended when Willoughby enters, only to cough up blood on Mildred. He’s dying of pancreatic cancer. He releases her without charge and is taken to hospital.
So, about those billboards: well, Mildred’s daughter, Angela, was raped and murdered (and burnt, although this part is not clearly or coherently introduced into the film). The local police department have no leads after nearly a year; they have cross-checked the DNA on Angela’s (burnt?) body with a list of known criminals. Here I became confused, as the very graphic images shown in her case file are that of a charcoal-colored, nearly unidentifiable, manikin-like body. What DNA are they able to cross-check from someone who was burnt? Or was she burnt? Yet another hole has opened, and the inter-dimensional transmission of this film has lost a part of the plot. In any event, Mildred is a grieving and justifiably angry mother. So she visits Ebbing Advertising and meets with the unreservedly cute Caleb Landry Jones, who plays Red Welby. Red has inherited the family advertising business and owns those billboards. She pays him a steep $5,000 for a month’s worth of messaging. They exchange a few good lines. The three billboards say, “Raped While Dying,” “Still No Arrests” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”
The billboards throw the town’s police department into a manic panic, especially after Mildred gives a television interview. The interview upsets Dixon’s mother; well into his 30s, he lives with her and takes advice from her. Sandy Martin plays “Momma Dixon,” a sadistic, cartoonish white racist who coaches her son in his “career.” They live with a turtle. He will later enact revenge on the ostensibly gay Red Wilby by punching him, throwing him out a window and then beating him while he tries to crawl away on the street. I say ostensibly gay because Red is earlier confronted by Dixon at the local bar about what they do to homosexuals in Cuba, an oblique reference to how his name is associated with Communism. Red notes his hair is red therefore the name. Ha Ha! Just remembering these scenes is making me ill. But let’s plod forward.
Lucas Hedges plays the one solid character in the film, Mildred’s son Robbie. He is sensible, restrained in the face of his mother’s meltdowns, and he even stops his father, Charlie, by holding a knife to his throat, from choking Mildred. In the same scene, in what is to be a comedic moment, Penelope asks to use the bathroom, and says something apologetic about interrupting this scene of domestic violence. It’s worth noting that Red’s assistant (or girlfriend) is equally given the role of a bimbo. All the living younger women characters, as I noted above, make Alicia Sliverstone’s character in Clueless look like Einstein. Empowering? I think not. The film falls flat at every corner. McDormand’s acting barely makes me sympathetic, as she oscillates between staring contests, crying and kicking (male and female) students, in their groins, at Robbie’s school after they piss her off.
The whole thing reaches a sort of dialectical inversion after Mildred throws Molotov cocktails, from the second floor of the Ebbing Advertising building, at the police department, where the recently fired Dixon is reading a letter from the recently deceased Willoughby. Dixon can’t seem to note the fiercely glowing fire or feel its heat as he listens to music on his iPod. Members of the audience, after several moments of this nonsense, actually start talking among themselves. I am in Poland, but I assume the questions are rather universal variations of “Why can’t he feel that heat? Why can’t he see that light?” Eventually becoming conscious of the ensuing blaze, Dixon, who has just read that moving letter which encourages him to embrace love to become a detective, grabs the Angela Hayes’ case file and jumps out the window. Mildred sees the man she calls “midget” (he’s short, and personally calls himself a dwarf), coming around the block. He helps Dixon, and the ambulance arrives. Mildred and “the midget” (Peter Dinklage) make a cover story in exchange for a date. They are then questioned by the new chief of police, Abercrombie, a Black man played by Clarke Peters, who was sent to replace Willoughby after his suicide. Whilst Abercrombie gets a few good lines in about the lazy crackers in the police department, and fires the racist Dixon, he also says to Mildred “We aren’t all the enemy.” Uh Huh.
Towards the end of the film, Dixon and Mildred go on a trip together to find a man they think is a rapist, although his DNA conclusively doesn’t match that of her daughter’s rapist and murderer. Dixon “finds” himself, in a miraculously quick ending, transmogrified into a noble character. As April Wolfe wrote in The Village Voice,
[A]s McDonagh’s story turns toward the redemption of one very bad cop, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), I found the Irishman McDonagh out of his league in handling uniquely American ills. McDonagh painstakingly humanizes a character who we find has unapologetically tortured a black man in police custody — I’ll get into that — and then Three Billboards seems to ask audiences to forgive and forget wrongs like police violence, domestic abuse, and sexual assault without demonstrating a full understanding of the centuries-long toll these crimes have taken on victims in real life. In some ways, watching this film is like reading those alt-right fashion profiles of Richard Spencer that insisted we overlook his campaign of quiet terror and find common ground with him. Nope.”
Unfortunately, Wolfe misses Mildred’s own use of the n-word and the fact that she does almost absolutely nothing, expect making a visit to the police station, when her Black co-worker, Denise played by Amanda Warren, is arrested for possession of two joints because of Dixon’s need for revenge against Mildred’s billboards. The third black character, in a film full of white faces, is Jerome, played by Darrell Britt-Gibson, who after seemingly meeting Denise once, later has date with her. This wouldn’t be problematic if it made any sense beyond, “Oh, we’re both Black let’s go on a date.” Jim Crow is alive and well. Wolfe also seems to miss the point that Mildred is willing to drive from Missouri to Idaho and (probably) kill a man without any evidence, based on Dixon’s word. Wolfe concludes, “And yet despite the gripes I have with McDonagh’s handling of urgently of-the-moment storylines and archetypes, he has also created a character in Mildred who has inspired me to buy maroon coveralls.” Yee Haw! The fact that Black characters in a film about Missouri (think: Ferguson!) are relegated to a few scenes, and that racism goes almost unchecked throughout the film should give all critics pause. Wolfe does admit that, “The other cops think Dixon is a dumbshit, but they all seem to agree that racism is totally cool, even Willoughby, who McDonagh presents as a kind of moral center of the film.” Yes, the chief who kills himself so his wife, who maffles throughout the film, Anne (Abbie Cornish), needn’t see him suffer. The man who protects a racist cop, watches as his police force does very little to solve a series crime, that guy? The moral center?
McDonagh, please go back to Misty Albion.
You’ve failed Black America, and cinema, miserably.
. . .
“I suppose I walk that line between comedy and cruelty because I think one illuminates the other. We’re all cruel, aren’t we? We are all extreme in one way or another at times and that’s what drama, since the Greeks, has dealt with. I hope the overall view isn’t just that though, or I’ve failed in my writing. There have to be moments when you glimpse something decent, something life-affirming even in the most twisted character. That’s where the real art lies.”
― Martin McDonagh
Art just doesn’t do hate very well; it is much better with sympathy. When Goya tried to stop barbarity with grotesque images he didn’t accomplish anything in my opinion. The grotesque as humor or satire entertains and perhaps informs but as art in itself it, if anything, desensitizes normality. The violence in cinema probably makes for more violence rather than disgusting us away from it. I think Picasso’s Gurernica masterpiece with its iconography of ordered suffering confused enough to make you think showing the bombing’s effect is about as good as it gets, better by far than say an ugly portrait of Hitler which he avoided because bullies desire attention. Yet the Goya failure is often repeated by well intended artists trying to stop barbarism by exposing it in detail to viewers. Serious grotesque art doesn’t work! The grotesque is only for satire or humor and even there I doubt it has any serious political success. The conceptual flaw Three Billboards makes is perhaps aware of this, perhaps even capitalizing on this, the way mafia films trash Italian culture for profit; and if that is the case shame on everyone involved.
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Yes, the problem with Three Billboards is that it did not ‘handle’ the grotesque well – something I think that can be done (has been done) – but the filmed failed miserably on all the registers you noted. Goya – interesting you note that, I actually prefer Bosch and Rubens (especially Rubens re: Saturn eating his son)