Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell anchor Martin McDonagh’s latest ode to the human condition, playing damaged, grieving shells lashing out in search of redemption or vengeance, whichever comes first.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri barely passes the Bechdel Test.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with Irish playwright/screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh’s oeuvre, which tends towards broken men from the violent arts (hangmen, assassins, psychopaths). Yet the fact that Frances McDormand gets no more than a handful of scenes next to other women, saying nothing of the subject matter of their conversation, is startling. The Bechdel Test is by no means foolproof, and no indicator for the greatness of a movie (There Will Be Blood). But in this instance, McDonagh consciously seems to be drawing a point out through the first act of his latest work about the value or lack thereof of a woman’s experience.
McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a salt-of-the-Earth Missouran fed up with the Ebbing Police Department’s lack of movement on her daughter Angela’s brutal rape and murder over seven months prior. So she takes out a series of ads on the titular billboards excoriating Ebbing P.D. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for his inaction and *poof*, we’re off and running.
That Hayes isn’t well-liked in the community (‘cunts’ are thrown around quite liberally) and Willoughby is kickstarts McDonagh’s investigation of this woman’s powerlessness. Hayes is questioned by Willoughby, her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), her former priest (Nick Searcy) and her abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) in quick succession, all explaining to her why the billboards are ‘unfair,’ don’t go about the rights of due process, are un-Christian or just plain stupid.
When McDormand finally snaps after a fat dentist tries to recklessly pry out a tooth because of some perceived slight to the Chief, McDonagh has drawn the line just thick enough — conveniently the only perspective on the matter not sought is that of Mildred Hayes. Just so, when McDormand finally gets a moment to speak, briefly, to a female co-worker, there’s a shared recognition, as if the unspoken is understanding enough. If the movie were content to roll around in the social ethics of listening to women for the rest of the movie, Three Billboards would’ve had a point to make. Yet McDonagh isn’t the writer to handle such subject matter with any deftness — the conversation with the priest especially seems slightly tacked-on overkill — and anyway, he’s got different monologues to get to.
McDonagh, great director though he is, could rightly be accused of being a relatively unimaginative camera guide. Part of this must come from his history in theater; his sense of blocking inside a room is impeccable, yet put two characters in a car or in wide open spaces and suddenly things don’t go so easily. Yet his talents manifest in his back and forth with actors, his ability to suss out the essence of what has made them likable and magnetic personalities and turn them on their head.
Take McDormand, for example. Among other roles, her performances as Marge Gunderson (Fargo), Linda Litsky (Burn After Reading) and Abby (Blood Simple) raise her among the ranks of the greatest actors playing normal humans asked to do extraordinary things or put in unthinkable positions. McDormand succeeds in finding the human pulse inside their bones to be something great, or memorable. So in Three Billboards, McDonagh saddles McDormand with the most unlikable character she’s ever played — Mildred Hayes is cruel, relentless, bull-headed and quick to violence, driven mad by the unimaginable tragedy she has faced. She’s Walter White without the benefit of getting screen time to explain herself. That McDormand more than accomplishes the task of turning Hayes into a beautiful portrayal of a broken thing will probably bring her a second Oscar; she deserves it.
Almost more interesting, however, is McDonagh’s ringer of lazy white nationalism, skittering alcoholism and attempted redemption that Sam Rockwell gets put through as Officer Jason Dixon, the beat cop who first sees the billboards. Dixon is similarly broken from the start, save the cause of his damnation being wholly self-created — it’s heavily implied he once tortured a black man in custody. Burdened with this outright malevolent backstory, and the hammy villainy of Dixon in the first act and a half of the movie, it’s a wonder and testament to McDonagh’s directorial eye and Rockwell’s magnificent humanism that by the film’s quietly burning finale Dixon appears to have taken more on the chin than he deserves. He hasn’t, but that’s the magic of the performance. Rockwell can be an alternatingly captivating and nauseating performer — for every melancholy Moon there’s the far too unhinged The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. McDonagh, ever the studious watcher of his actors’ default modes, weaves Rockwell’s manic intensity through Dixon, just enough to seem cartoonishly ham-fisted, yet not irredeemable on the whole.
McDonagh’s greatest work, the Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson vehicle (or, if you like, the ‘vehicle to say the word ‘alcoves‘ a lot’) In Bruges, deals with the brokenness of its characters with a sort of unforgiving nihilism; both protagonists reach for a salvation that they have earned on camera despite their backstories, yet are denied it in turn, with little fanfare or remorse.
Just so, anyone looking for happiness at the end of the rape-assault-murder-suicide-arson-more assault-racism-dwarf hate parade of Three Billboards should stop reading. Instead of focusing on just the salvation of the humans themselves, wandering sometimes aimlessly, as they do, in a palace of their own shit, McDonagh posits a greater palace of shit that must be dug out from.
Ebbing, Missouri doesn’t exist, but its placement in the heart of America, at the tip of what might be charitably considered The South, is no accident. Chief Willoughby mentions to Hayes at one point ‘you could fire all of the cops with a little bit of racism in them, but then you’d only be left with three cops, and they’d all hate fags.’ McDonagh’s acid tongue is perfectly suited for goring out the heart of the tarnished American experiment, and Ebbing, Missouri shudders, damn near collapses, under the weight of its purpose in saving the country’s moral soul in Three Billboards. There will be moments where a vapid millennial opines about “violence begetting more violence” — “I saw that on a bookmark once” — and for a split second the receiver of that golden nugget is allowed peace to reckon with the grander decisions of their lives. Hayes sees a (badly CGI’d) deer next to her billboards and is offered a moment’s reflection on the idea of reincarnation, or at least of a great signal from beyond. A racist is told to love as a (literal) fire rages around them, and the twisted compass in their brain finally points north when given the opportunity to save key pieces of evidence.
But Martin McDonagh is a different kind of humanist. You see, humanity is a series of tests. Most people, even the most irredeemable members of Ebbing, Missouri, know the answers — the better angels of our nature must continue to prevail, even in death, in order for the fabric of society to not completely disintegrate into an endless cycle of violence and retributive vengeance. Yet expecting perfection from humans is akin to trying to establish a DNA database of all men from birth so that they can be checked if (when) they commit sexual assault and murder. What Martin McDonagh finds interesting are the intersection points where people — neither good nor bad — stare their better angels in the face and walk the other way, not necessarily out of malcontent. Mostly just out of weakness.
Three Billboards concerns itself with all manner of weaknesses. Chief Willoughby is almost immediately introduced as coming to terms with the realities of his mortality. Ebbing Advertising owner Red Welby is a struggling businessman, but also questions whether his righteous thirst for vengeance for the physical toll unjustly put upon him is cause enough to be weak in the face of a greater humanity. Rockwell’s Dixon is consistently sat next to the devil of selfish, white supremacist tunnel vision (his mother, as played by Sandy Martin) and asked to open his heart to the world that has passed him by while he was drinking — then he is asked the question again, all the more dramatically themed as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” plays on the bar jukebox. Hayes grieves, which is weakness as forgiveness, and sometimes impossible.
McDonagh gives each their moment to choose a fate for themselves, never stooping to determinism to indicate towards a better middle path. Yet by virtue of what order he sequences the scenes of these choices in, McDonagh tips his hat to his possible philosophy of the American human. It’s a deeply satisfying ending, cold and warm at the same time, and Three Billboards is allowed to be the rare awards season contender without a palette cleansing ending for voters to walk out of with a smile. Maybe that’s because the audience, just like McDonagh, is coming to realize that catharsis and meaningful cleansing aren’t around the corner for us humans, either. Humanity is human, and it’s worth focusing on the moments of our failure. The characters in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri are damaged, permanently. It’s their choice to begin healing or to damage everyone else.