Damn it, I don’t know how to feel about Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In the playwright turned feature writer-director’s 2012 film Seven Psychopaths, every character was diabolical, self-destructing over coveting a fluffy little Shih Tzu, and I reveled in their pain. I never sensed that filmmaker wanted us to take one minute of the film as resembling real life; the psychopaths were nearly caricatured projections of the seven deadly sins, for God’s sake. And in 2008’s In Bruges, I howled with laughter. McDonagh’s rapid-fire dialogue and the farcical setup of two hitmen on the run — in the sleepy city of Bruges, of all places — was masterful tragicomedy that, again, I was never asked to take seriously. But in Three Billboards, where livid, grieving mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) taunts the local police for not solving her daughter’s rape and murder (by being burned to death) from nine months prior, McDonagh has taken on a situation that demands we take it seriously. This time, I was struck from the start by how absolutely real and brutal this setup and these people were.
At first, the prospect of McDonagh skewering some racist Missouri cops delighted me. McDormand as Mildred is imperfect rage personified, a lady vengeance for the ages. But as 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 such as 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.
Mildred pays the twerpy little ad man of Ebbing, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), to raise up three successive billboards reading, “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Racist, incompetent cop Dixon flips a lid over this, threatening Red, whose office happens to be right across the street from the town’s tiny, Jim Crow–era police station. McDonagh tends to favor close-set locations that could be re-created on the stage. Dixon is protective of the reputation of his boss, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), enough to threaten — and eventually carry out — battery against Red, beating him to within an inch of his life before throwing the scrawny guy out of a second-story window. But as we quickly find out from the gossip of nearly every character in Ebbing, Dixon would rather be arresting and torturing black people.
Rockwell is a natural at portraying dimwitted villains, here stirring pity even for this often-hateful character, who proves so deplorably inept at life. Dixon is a comics-reading mama’s boy drunk who’s too dumb to see that everyone including his own colleagues hates his guts — just not for the reasons viewers might. The other cops think Dixon is a dumb shit, but they all seem to agree that racism is totally cool, even Willoughby, whom McDonagh presents as a kind of moral center of the film. McDonagh’s easy pass for Chief Willoughby and Dixon presses us to consider their crimes, which have so many contemporary and historical analogues, in the same light that we thought of the hitman fantasies of In Bruges. That’s too much to ask.
McDonagh obligates himself to find the humanity in even the deeply flawed, which I must admit I’ve often thought admirable in his work. Here, he attempts to make Willoughby sympathetic by giving the chief incurable pancreatic cancer. Willoughby reveals this to Mildred (and us) as he begs her to take down the signs. He assures her he’s done everything he can to find her daughter’s murderer. I know we’re supposed to feel for this character, to find his barbed quips charming — this is the boyishly amiable Woody Harrelson, after all — but he has so much blood on his hands that I couldn’t set aside my antipathy. First off, this is a guy who paternally protects Dixon, even as Dixon is trying to murder and imprison black people. Secondly, we see that he did not do everything he could to solve the murder; nearly every scene we see of the cops features the men joking around, sometimes with their feet literally propped on top of their cold cases. McDonagh is criticizing the lazy cops in those scenes but also dirtying up the perception of their laissez-faire chief. It’s called complicity.
And then there’s the matter of Dixon. Ostensibly, this is Mildred’s story, but McDonagh loves Dixon enough to give him equal time, and this suggests Mildred and Dixon as two equal, opposing forces, both with their individual ideological flaws. Mildred is not without her defects. We see the night her daughter died, in flashback. In it, in an argument, Mildred admits that she once drove drunk with her kids in the car. Then she refuses to let her daughter borrow her car before the two trade insults that end with the daughter screaming, “I hope I get raped!” and Mildred returning, “I hope you get raped, too!” — McDonagh’s trademark bleak humor of tragic coincidence. But Mildred’s crimes of indignation (raising the billboards) and a big mouth are nothing like Dixon’s.
McDonagh sets up Dixon to repent and be raised from the ashes like a phoenix — he literally has to emerge from a fire at the police station — while Mildred is set up to forgive him. Then, impossibly, McDonagh pretty much turns them into a buddy-comedy duo. The writer-director was clearly inspired by the muddied morality tales of the great Flannery O’Connor — characters are even seen reading her books — but O’Connor wouldn’t have tried to sell the bad guy as suddenly all good. Yeah, that drunken, murderous convict might do one selfless thing, but O’Connor would let us know he’s still rotten, while McDonagh would have us believe that Dixon is legitimately a changed man overnight.
And yet despite the gripes I have with McDonagh’s handling of urgently of-the-moment storylines and archetypes, he has created a character in Mildred who has inspired me to buy maroon coveralls. It is, as with all McDonagh projects, his wicked dialogue that wins my affection, and Mildred’s is some of the grouchiest, sharpest I’ve heard. In a favorite scene, Mildred explains to Willoughby that she thinks a registry of all male babies should be implemented to more quickly catch criminals. “Once he done something wrong … kill him,” she muses with a half-smirk and shrug. McDormand’s unceremonious, deadpan delivery of outrageous lines like these, usually laden with fuck/shit/goddamned, taps a dark, angry little spot in my heart. The justice system perpetually fails women, and I admit to indulging in the “throw them in a pit” catharsis talk myself. McDormand could have carried this film all the way through a minefield of touchy topics, singed but with all parts in the right place, primed for a painful laugh. But goddamnit if the cops in this story didn’t ruin all the fun.