Notionally a point of departure for playwright-turned-writer-director Martin McDonagh after the just-dandy In Bruges and the eccentric but flippant Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri not only turns McDonagh’s wandering eye to America – either Middle American or the South, depending upon your placement of the pointedly liminal Missouri – but to a deepening of themes, a reckoning with untouched subjects and untapped potentials. The story of an implacable mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who erects three incendiary billboards chastising the local police for their failure to solve the rape-murder of her daughter, Three Billboards is, as we say, going for it. At the same time, I’m not entirely sure the film does go for it, which is where its problems commence.
Mildred’s intrepid, wrecking-ball quest for justice places her not only at odds with the town of Ebbing as a whole but with two specific fixtures of the local police station: chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who happens to be dying of cancer in what amounts to the town’s open secret, and the aloof, initially-asinine Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who we are told harbors a deep-set hatred for African-Americans and who barely attempts to hide his subcutaneous distaste for everyone else who isn’t a good ol’ boy. Compared to his intermittently amusing but essentially vapid and passive Seven Psychopaths, a film which attempts little and achieves what it attempts with mild gusto, McDonagh casts his net with an envious and unenviable breadth this time out. He ropes in police brutality, unreported violence against women, prosecution of African-Americans, and the tensions between town and police.
Sometimes, McDonagh attends to those issues with testy comic filigrees, hitting the nail on the head while scrubbing at America’s scab wounds to draw blood. Sometimes the same humorous barbs suffocate the issues at hand, or shield the film from digging beneath the top-soil or moral unrest and ethical dubiousness. Often, though, McDonagh just plain throws his thematic catches back into the ocean without more than a second glance, for fear of wrangling a subject too touchy, too unwieldy, or too unanswered and unanswerable too handle, digest easily, or lock-down with his often amusing, typically pugnacious, but occasionally trivializing jokes. And, while he repeatedly refrains from his usual issues of unwieldy, unstable men to write a truly formidable female protagonist, he lays a few incredibly off-putting and easy jokes at the foot of a younger woman that reveal his still-tenuous relationship to women.
But the comedy is, at best, a secondary concern or a distraction from a more central and, to my mind, less discussed issue with Three Billboards, namely whether issues of race, class, and especially gender are actually thematic centers or simply window dressing. Which brings us to the central conundrum of a film that is a much closer counterpart to McDonagh’s brother’s Calvary than anyone might have imagined. A depoliticized, almost mythical film desperately craving real-world political implications, the film’s heart really lies not with questions of violence against women (or any sub-group in particular, or with any particular 21st century concern) but with an almost spiritual quest for “goodness” and desires for justice which corrupt into a paralyzing thirst for revenge and the calcification of hatred in the soul. There’s no other way to cope with or digest a handful of too-loquacious voice-over speeches the film gifts Harrelson and which place Mildred and Dixon on a moral precipice where brewing inner-hatred may bleed into a not-exactly-restful qualm. In point of fact, the film’s eccentric humor – the butt of many claims that the film trivializes issues of police brutality, racism, and sexism – is less central to any such banalization than the film’s far more sincere belief in its own abstract moral structure, itself more focused on what the film believes to be universal questions of hatred and hope rather than how questions of gender and race alter the universality of these claims.
Which is to say, although Three Billboard Outside of Ebbing Missouri lathers the Americana thickly in the too-cute Appalachian music, the fictitious Ebbing Missouri is rather obviously an allegorical construction. It is an empty vessel for questions of the soul that might as well take place anywhere in the world. What role then does social history, or social contemporary, play in the film’s essentially abstract conundrum? And why does McDonagh introduce race and gender at all if he isn’t actually interested in them? Mobilizing questions of rape, police brutality, and racial injustice at best only distract the film from its real concerns. At worst – which is true more often than I’d like to admit – it actively flattens the film’s understanding of marginalization and social intersectionality to the point where violence against any human, and hatred and a desire to commit violence from any human for any reason, are all equalized. Here, for instance, Dixon’s apparent distaste for African-Americans occupies the same moral plane as Mildred’s own disgust for the police department who, we learn, have essentially done everything humanly possible to find Angela’s rapist and killer. The latter’s “hatred” and Mildred’s “hatred” become mirror images because they both “hate”, and the relative power of those they hate becomes irrelevant. Reading the final images of the film in any other way than moral equivocation requires a kind of gross negligence with structure and imagery that I, personally, am not willing to commit.
Three Billboards does not begin this way, and if prone to good faith moves, I would suggest that we might judge it on its own terms. But then, the terms of the film become muddled when it introduces issues of, say, police departments mis-prosecuting African-Americans not so it can grapple with this issue but as a convenient maneuver in its increasingly fussy, complicated-for-the-sake-of-complication narrative that hinges on moral contrivance and arbitrary development. The best moments – many of them, in fact – sicken the stomach, and better yet, scratch the soul, but the continued impact of the film is more deadening than unsettling or genuinely destabilizing. And its desire to simply throw themes into the mix seemingly for fun is an ultimately nullifying construction.
What saves the film, then, are the performers. (A playwright by heart and a film-writer by day, McDonagh is far more concerned with his performers than his formal, visual project, which is almost nonexistent when it isn’t actively detrimental.) McDonagh is a fantastic director of actors, even if his handling here is sometimes skeptical with regard to whether he expects them to play up or down to the comedy (and not in a productively ambivalent way). It’s heresy, but McDormand may be even better than in Fargo, even if this film attempts and mangles many of that film’s nuances and frost-bitten peculiarities. Her face almost immobile and her temperament unwavering, her face sinks into a resolve that could test even Buster Keaton’s might, and her hurling of McDonagh’s invective is matched only by her thoughtful grasping of McDonagh’s precious moments of tenderness, as when Willoughby coughs up blood on her face and she cradles him like the ghost of her dear-departed daughter. McDormand plays Mildred as a bruised woman violently sublimating any sympathy in humankind in service of her need for closure, but flickers of almost-pitying compassion emerge.
Harrelson’s own performance, despite latching onto a prickly but mocking respect for Mildred, also cosigns this interpretation, externalizing a sense of wounded ego about his failure to solve Angela’s murder. (It should be mentioned that everything in the film clearly suggests that Willoughby tried as hard as possible to solve the case, but that no shred of even tenuous evidence ever showed up). Willoughby’s good-natured but stubborn humor is also the only successful riposte in the film to Mildred’s dogged determination, increasingly mule-ish as the film progresses. The anger of others, it seems, she can internalize and redirect outward upon the world like a maelstrom. But a cuttingly cheery comeback that harbors no real hatred toward her, but simply frustration? This, her all-or-nothing demeanor cannot contemplate, let alone mobilize for her own use. It’s as though she needs everyone to hate her to continue her quest.
Counterbalancing Harrelson’s gentle depression is Rockwell’s somewhat singular ability to expose the kernel of humanity beneath a truly vicious and externally stationary man, turning a reclaimed-racist stereotype into a flesh-and-blood character. Not to give short shrift to a genuinely stellar cast, I’ll say that John Hawkes is also wonderfully mean as an abusive ex-husband, Peter Dinklage manages an almost ungodly feat of making sense out of an irrelevant character, and Lucas Hedges – as Mildred’s son – continues to stake his claim as the sharpest working male actor of his age after last year’s Manchester-by-the-Sea and this year’s Lady Bird. Each of these figures is, I think, often wasting away in search of a sharper screenplay or more adventurous direction. But Three Billboards’ mixture of the out of touch and the on point, while less unorthodox than hoped, carves out a minor place for itself in the long shadow of Southern morality plays cast by a visually-name-checked Flannery O’Connor.