Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
(SPOILERS) One of the most interesting aspects of what can often be a rising level of tedious repetition over the extended annual awards season is the manner in which pictures are reappraised as the spotlight intensifies. A frontrunner can be reduced to tears as an accusatory critical challenge, usually political or (in historical or biographical cases) factual, begins to hold sway. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri has been the recipient of the lion’s share of such flak this year, but I somehow doubt Martin McDonagh intended his picture to be held up to scrutiny as an exemplar of any comfortably vetted viewpoint; such reductive treatment would be entirely foreign to its thorny DNA.
The controversy has focussed on Oscar frontrunner Sam Rockwell’s character Dixon, a racist cop who McDonagh has the temerity to suggest is also a human being. It might be argued, had his presence been ameliorated in some way, that Three Billboards would have an uncontested path to Best Picture; there have been only plaudits in respect of lead character Mildred (Frances McDormand, also the favourite in her category), the mother who, incensed at the lack of police progress in investigating the death of her daughter, pays for three billboards on a town backroad to display “RAPED WHILE DYING” “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?” and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” Her focused anger is only matched by Dixon’s boiling rage, striking out in all directions and coming to a head when his beloved police chief (Woody Harrelson) shoots himself in the head as a means to bow out early from his terminal pancreatic cancer. Dixon follows the picture’s most savage, violent act by attempting to make amends, something some have seen as redemptive. As such, one might conversely suggest it’s precisely the unpredictable furrow McDonagh ploughs, his willingness to court the seemingly unpalatable, that has enabled the film to get this far in the first place.
The biggest compliment I can pay Three Billboards is that there’s a sense throughout of not knowing in which direction it’s heading, an entirely consuming, blissful rarity in movies. In the face of that, it’s admittedly easy to come away indifferent to any negative takes; the picture is by turns sad, hilarious, horrifying and moving.
The cast, as is common in McDonagh brothers movies, are a joy to behold. On the supporting front, it’s nice to see Caleb Landry Jones, so commonly consigned to dishevelled, repellant wrecks, playing someone sympathetic for a change (if not the brightest tool in the shed). Lucas Hedges, so good in Manchester by the Sea (and also worth investigating in The Zero Theorem), is superb as Mildred’s long-suffering son, given to calling his mum a cunt when arguments intensify, acting a scene with Froot Loops in his hair and pulling a knife on his father when the latter threatens Mildred. Zeljko Ivanek is the Desk Sergeant hovering on the indolent spectrum, in a space somewhere between Willoughby’s well-meaning passivity and Dixon’s recklessness.
Peter Dinklage is inevitably the town “midget” James (McDonagh’s dwarf obsession is now rivalling Terry Gilliam’s), but sketches a poignant portrait of man alternative mocked and patronised. As Abercrombie, Clarke Peters brings air of withering disdain of fools similar to his most famous detective role, while John Hawkes has no qualms about foregrounding the ugliest side of Mildred’s ex Charlie. I had to take a moment to place Kerry Condon (it’s a while since I saw her in anything). The only bum note is struck by Abbie Cornish’s wavering accent, not up to the task of both emoting and staying in an American groove.
Many of the anti- critiques (albeit, most reviewers who have misgivings over the picture still acknowledge its considerable merits) have taken issue with what they see as a redemption arc for Dixon, and even more that he is repositioned as a hero figure. This seems to me to entirely misread McDonagh’s intent and the tone of the picture generally. There are no heroes here, only deeply flawed individuals, some of them more so than others; some of them might be construed as good people doing bad things, and some might be considered bad people doing good things, but to reduce either to binary positions is exactly what McDonagh isn’t doing (I’ve also seen it suggested that the townsfolk are the villains, but really that’s much too neat for a picture expressly avoiding that thinking; break down those townsfolk and they are the same flawed individuals as anyone else). The message, “Anger begets more anger”, is pointedly delivered by Charlie’s girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving), the dumbest character in the picture (as Dinklage observes “Penelope said ‘begets’?”). By using her as a conduit, McDonagh’s telling us it isn’t difficult; her truth is much more resounding and straightforward than the sagacious insights offered by Willoughby in his three letters to residents of Ebbing, Missouri.
Harrelson is effectively the picture’s third lead, and positioned as the voice of reason and restraint, a loving father and husband and, if not wholly diligent – the extent to which he really did everything he could in the investigation is unclear; he certainly doubts himself enough to be reviewing the case file again after the billboards go up, and he certainly indulges his officers’ idleness – he’s a police chief who exercises understanding and tolerance. In a McDonagh picture, though, it would be a mistake simply to take him as the “good” guy. He may rationalise his way out of seeing his disease through to the bitter end with his wife and children, but that doesn’t necessarily he mean made the right choice. Any more than his puckish payment of another month’s rent on the billboards, knowing how it will provoke the townsfolk, is “good”.
Or, in his third letter, suggesting there’s a good man within Dixon. Whether he has seen something we haven’t, or blindly indulged him (Abercrombie gives Dixon his marching orders almost as soon as he walks through the door as the new chief), it’s further indication that, just because Willoughby stands on a prudent plateau, it doesn’t mean he knows what’s best. I rather read the letter to Dixon as Willoughby knowing what to say to elicit a very specific response; Dixon doesn’t do what he does to become a good person, he’s does it to aspire to the noble image of himself Willoughby has placed in his mind. Which is why, when that better self doesn’t materialise – when his dreams of becoming the great detective crumble – he has no perseverance and slips right back again into inappropriate behaviour (this reminded me a little of blithe psychopath Junior Frenger in Miami Blues, who attempts – not very hard – to turn over a new, upstanding leaf while impersonating a police officer… until he’s run over by an irate offender).
As juicy roles go, this might be the juiciest McDormand has bitten into, certainly flourishing more fireworks than the quirkily composed pregnant Columbo Marge Gunderson in Fargo. She’s fearlessly single minded in her quest, self-destructively indifferent to whoever it inflames. She sticks a drill through her dentist’s fingernail (admittedly, the bastard is all set to extract a tooth that may or may not need extraction without an anaesthetic), knees a couple of school kids who throw coffee over her car in their crotches, accuses a priest of complicity in paedophilia, and firebombs the police station. And yet, in one scene she can show complete indifference to Willoughby announcing he has cancer – for her, just an excuse not to get the job done he should have done – in another her “Oh, baby”, after he coughs up blood on her face and embarrassedly apologises, is the height of compassion. She also talks through her bunny slippers.
Mildred’s crusade bears the weight of knowing the last thing she said to her daughter was “Yeah, I hope you get raped too!” during an argument. It’s this twisting and turning that makes the scene at the end of her date with James where, rather than clobber her ex with it (there’s never a point we don’t see him as slime, yet she affords him an understanding we can’t), she places the half-drunk bottle of wine on his table for him to finish, a masterpiece of tension in miniature. But, if she restrains herself from hitting him – or his girlfriend – that’s no indication that her rage has abated. She still needs a channel, and that Dixon should open this door to her causes me to question the soundness of reasoning of those who would see McDonagh painting him as a hero, or redeemed.
Mildred: Hey, fuckhead!
Desk Sergeant: Don’t say “What?”, Dixon, when she comes in calling you a fuckhead.
I’d assumed, from the generalised comments I read before seeing Three Billboards, that Dixon had a dramatic and defined redemption arc, so I was left scratching my head come the final scene. He has nothing of the sort. He’s still a racist. He hasn’t atoned for his sins. He unprofessionally gets Mildred’s hopes up (okay, he’s no longer professionally employed, but still; and whether she’s okay with it is irrelevant) because he envisioned himself as the big hero, and when that falls apart and he’s left with nothing, he needs to do something, so killing someone who deserves it comes to mind, a path he’s willing to drag Mildred down with him. There’s no redemption there. Nothing heroic.
Now, McDonagh might have gone another way. He might have had allowed Dixon’s act to be that chance encounter that solves the crime, “wrapped up through sheer stupidity”, as Willoughby suggests in his letter, and it would have been very cathartic and very Hollywood. And very not Martin McDonagh. That would have offered Dixon a heroic, redemptive arc but McDonagh very specifically doesn’t offer him that. It’s almost as if he’s aware of all the pitfalls of such clichéd narrative conceits, the sort of devices he references in Seven Psychopaths… (Similarly, there are a number of other points where the picture subverts the genre standard, where a more mainstream picture might have followed an easier path; the set up itself is the stuff to suggest a cover-up or conspiracy, or gross incompetence. That Willoughby’s a nice guy rather pulls the rug from under that. That the crime is never solved is a further pull. Later, when Dixon learns a letter has been left for him by Willoughby, we rather expect a trap on the part of Mildred (at least, I know I wasn’t alone in seeing that as a possibility), seeking revenge, and in another picture, she might have).
Charlie: All this anger, man. It just begets greater anger.
Likewise, it’s been suggested we’re supposed to see Mildred and Dixon as the same at the end, as “morally equivalent” individuals who have found a connection on their (as yet non-committal) vigilante quest. Again, the problem with this is expecting McDonagh’s writing to fit an established mould. Yes, they have arrived at the same outlet for their rage, but that doesn’t equate them, and we aren’t supposed to think that, because Mildred is, to a greater or lesser extent, sympathetic, Dixon is too. It’s tempting to suggest, if you want easily digestible platitudes and unswerving, straight-as-an-arrow characterisation, to leave the theatre with moral certitude, you should just go and watch The Post.
Some opinion pieces have expressed indignation that McDonagh feels it appropriate to empathise with people who can do or say terrible things, which I find a baffling position but reflects the kind of blinkered vilification, the rush to judgement relying on herd instinct, that has gone hand in hand with the rise of social media: to give no ground from a safe distance, to approach as all or nothing. There seems to be an almost wilful desire to misread and rebuke McDonagh, to equate understanding a character with advocating the same. If anything, Dixon is the devil, extending Mildred an olive branch to join him on a road trip to hell.
Another connected line to the Dixon debate is that McDonagh features a racist character without giving a voice (or at best a very peripheral one) to black characters. Buzzfeed offered an interesting read, in which this charge was levelled: “the terrible fallacy that we can only focus on one type of oppression at once…” Okay, but one might equally posit that it’s as much of a fallacy to suggest that, because you can address more than one subject in a work of art, it’s appropriate or that it’s your responsibility to do so. You might focus on the absence of central roles for black characters, and that they should be there in order to validate McDonagh’s discourse, but that would be to assume Three Billboards is directly about race, when it is not. You could tell that story, but it would require repositioning, and with it, Mildred and her cause would no longer be the driving force. That there is “no further mention of his horrifying past” is rather the point concerning Dixon; there’s no wrapping of themes and issues in a neat bow. They’re to be left dangling, unresolved, persisting.
Gabriella: This reporter for one hopes this finally pits an end to this strange saga of the three billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri–
Mildred: This doesn’t put an end to shit, you fucking retard! This is just the fucking start! Why don’t you put that in your “Good-morning-Missouri-fucking-wake-up” broadcast, bitch?!
Leading on from this is the “all things to all people” impulse to evaluate material based on its current socio-political relevance and concordant achievement. The Vox piece, which does a very good job of summarising the various controversies relating to the picture, reached the conclusion that Three Billboards fell short of “what it could have meant for this moment”. I’d rather assume that the less neatly something can be pigeonholed into ticking boxes of “worth”, the more intrinsic value it is likely to have (this is why you read the critiques of torn critics, wishing to celebrate Mildred as a strong woman while simultaneously disappointed the picture doesn’t tackle race as stridently as they’d like). I’d be concerned by a McDonagh picture that was leading the charge in “what it could have meant for this moment”, as that sounds like a very different writer-director.
I don’t know if Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri is superior to In Bruges (I suspect not, but time and repeat viewings will tell), but it’s certainly the best work from either of the brothers since. Neil has set his sights higher (Calvary) but only The Guard has achieved the level of consistency of Martin’s best two pictures. The latter’s Seven Psychopaths is a lot of fun, but it, as McDonagh crucially identified when he had cause to revisit it, lacks the heart of In Bruges (Neil’s recent War on Everyone is similarly frivolous to Psychopaths, which is fine, but further underlines the difference between them turning in great films and simply a high-grade, Tarantino-esque popcorn ones). I do know that I don’t think the criticisms of Three Billboards stand, however, and that I really wouldn’t want it to provide a safety net of comfort or mollification in any of the ways suggested. There’s the lurking fear that being Oscar nominated might be the worst thing that could happen to McDonagh’s voice, because awards naturally encourage and celebrate homogeneity – what all those peers can agree upon – rather than distinctiveness and individuality. So, long may he continue to rock boats and ruffle feathers.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.