Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonagh (director and writer), Ben Davis (cinematographer), Jon Gregory (editor)
Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Darrell Britt Gibson, Amanda Warren, Clarke Peters (cast)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not a good film. In fact, it’s a bad film. Despite a strong cast and what could be a poignant story, its dedication to centering whiteness and maleness in a story about the lack of accountability and political violence of the American police makes for an uncomfortable watch. And not in that “challenging” good way.
The film begins with an interesting premise. A mother, who after seven months without movement in her daughter’s murder case, rents out three billboards with a strikingly brutal message about her daughters violent death. This decision sparks a series of events that will shape the small town forever. Disappointingly, the film doesn’t deliver on the potential of its premise. The most important and striking thing to note is that the film isn’t really about Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, and it’s certainly not about her daughter who was brutally raped and murdered months before the film even begins. If the movie has a central protagonist, it’s the racist cop, Officer James Dixon (played by Sam Rockwell). From the outset, he’s a man well known for torturing an unnamed black man—a crime which is never explored or used as more than set dressing—and the film’s major story arc is focused on his redemption.
What drove any of the people involved in this movie to make it is honestly beyond me. It’s so tone deaf and misguided that it fails on multiple levels at the same time. It’s hard to care about the young woman who was murdered, as we rarely learn anything about her. It’s hard to care about her mother, played with grit and bleak humor by Frances McDormand, because she barely has any character development or identity outside of “angry woman.” Along with her paper-thin characterization, she also drops the N-word in a completely unnecessary scene which seems inserted only so that the cast can say the N-word whilst mocking the idea of politically correct language.
If I’m being generous I’d say that director Martin McDonagh is trying to make some kind of statement about the police and the institutional structures of oppression they inhabit. But when Woody Harrelson’s tired yet cheery “good guy” cop (dying of terminal cancer so he must be empathetic) jokes that “if you fired every cop with racist leanings, there’d be three cops left and they’d hate the fags” it’s hard to discern what, if anything, McDonagh is trying to say.
From the start, the film kept making me think about whose stories are chosen to be told. It’s established early on that everyone in the small town is aware of the black man that Dixon tortured, yet McDonagh didn’t deem that a story worth telling, let alone dedicating a couple of minutes to it. What of that man’s family? Did they not want justice? I suppose the story we have instead is the easier tale for McDonagh to tell. One that can lean into racist humor and erasure without having the heavy weight of reality constantly driving your well-intentioned edginess into the ground. For the white members of the audience, it’s our place to question these choices and criticize the inherent laziness and danger in constantly centering our own stories, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that misses every mark it sets.
There are three named Black characters in the movie: Jerome, Denise, and Abercrombie, all of whom are used to further the white characters’ narrative arcs. Jerome delivers a set of extra billboard posters to Mildred after her original ones are burnt down. Abercrombie is the new police chief who fires Dixon, encouraging a change in his racist old heart. And Denise is Mildred’s boss who gets arrested on a trumped up marijuana charge in an attempt by the local police to threaten Mildred. Denise then isn’t seen again until she happily jumps out of her car after being freed due to some wrongly filed paper work and we never hear another word about it. Now obviously in real life the statistics are sky high of Black people who’re imprisoned on minor drugs charges. It’s a real issue, but McDonagh treats it with such disregard that it’s barely talked about after Denise is arrested, which makes Mildred seem like a terribly selfish person who does nothing to free her friend and employer who’s only been locked up because of Mildred’s actions. Maybe that’s the point, but once again it’s a point proven at the expense of an underdeveloped Black character.
The lack of proper characterization runs throughout the entire film. It’s there with Frances McDormand’s Mildred and her bottomless grief to the secondary characters like a wasted Peter Dinklage, whose only role seems to be vague comic relief which basically means that everyone else constantly calls him a midget. This weird ableism signifies the film’s lack of care for its characters or its message, if it has one.
The only character who’s truly explored in a way that provides substantial change and development is Dixon, a racist and violent man. He’s given hobbies; he loves comic books, noticeably sporting an Incorruptible shirt as well as single issues of the series. His home life is delved into; he lives with his toxic mother, who also seems to be his best friend. And he’s also given the film’s only redemption arc. From racist cop to chummy crime solving vigilante, James Dixon’s apparent hero arc is unsettling.
Dixon’s previous racially motivated crimes are never explored or even discussed outside of allusion. We see him enter the office which owns the billboard advertising space, where Dixon proceeds to throw a young man out of a window and punch a woman in the face. But then the disgraced ex-cop is given a sweet motivational letter from Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby, who in a five minute voice over teaches him how to love and live, which leads to him teaming up with Mildred “I care about racist violence until the racist offers to help me” Hayes in a strange odd couple style ending. It’s the most violently irresponsible and misguided choice in a film defined by them.
Essentially, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film about the misuse of power which misuses its own power to tell a story which is irresponsible at best and dangerous at worst. As the film ended with Mildred and Dixon teaming up to maybe kill a rapist, a thought crossed my mind. Sadly, the most authentic and profound thing about the whole story is that when it comes down to it—despite her alleged anger at his racism and his brutal violence towards one of the few people who helped her—Mildred ultimately picked the solidarity and companionship of a white racist because it was the easy choice.