For the first half of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, I thought for sure it was a Good movie with a capital G. The humor is dry and pitch-black, the performances (especially by Frances McDormand) are fiercely committed, and the narrative feels substantial and morally ambiguous. McDormand plays Mildred, a grieving and rage-filled woman who rents three billboards to call out the beloved police chief (Woody Harrelson) for failing to find her daughter’s killer. Mildred is sympathetic, not only because she has a dead child and an abusive ex-husband, but because she’s a well-rounded Nasty Woman at a time when we really need one. And yet we don’t entirely root for her, mostly because Harrelson’s Willoughby is terminally ill and appears to be a genuinely decent person–maybe the only one in the film.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have certain flaws from the start. Director Martin McDonagh clearly has a “special strong woman” problem: aside from Mildred, every woman in the film is dehumanized, uncharacterized, and/or treated as the butt of the joke. Mildred’s ex’s girlfriend (Samara Weaving) is very young, very pretty, and very stupid. A hapless secretary (also very young, pretty, and stupid) serves almost no function except to get punched in the face. Willoughby’s wife (Abbie Cornish) is at least twenty years his junior and not particularly three-dimensional. (This age difference is not addressed in any way, presumably since everyone should just be used to seeing 55-year-old men act opposite 35-year-old women by now.) The lone black woman is a cipher without any motivations outside helping Mildred. Mildred’s daughter is a bratty teenager who is raped to death before the movie begins.
Three Billboards also immediately has some race issues; there are no main characters of color, and the script establishes the character of Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-witted cop who lives with his mother, by casually mentioning his torture of a black man, without ever showing the tortured man on screen or even giving him a name. It’s cold comfort that Dixon was clearly being set up as a villain (more on that later) when a white writer is using violence against black bodies for the sake of “edgy” characterization without bothering to humanize any actual black people.
And then there’s the lazy “midget” humor at the expense of Peter Dinklage, which is pretty self-explanatory. It’s like McDonagh was trying to be politically incorrect, like he was just ticking off the boxes of every “ism” he could think of.
But still, I was ready to like this movie for the remarkable character work alone. And one scene in the middle even gave me hope that the movie was reaching for greater things: Mildred is in the police station, and when she calls Dixon out for “n***er-torturing” (even the sympathetic characters use the n-word in this movie, which–again–might have been defensible in the name of “realism” if the movie were at all interested in the black experience), he goes on an incoherent rant that goes something like, “you can’t say that anymore, now it’s people-of-color torturing.” I thought this was a brilliant indictment of ignorant racists who don’t understand the point of “political correctness,” an interpretation that was apparently confirmed by Willoughby’s incisive and damning statement to Mildred: “If you got rid of every cop with slightly homophobic or racist leanings, you wouldn’t have any officers left.”
Hot damn, I thought. Is this Oscar-baity movie about the struggles of the white working class in flyover country–which should be a Trumpian’s wet dream–indicting America’s police as systemically racist? Is the script using Willoughby’s character to point out that even decent people can enable everything terrible in this world? Putting aside the sexism and ableism, does this movie have something to say about race? Is this actually going to be a Great movie with a capital G?
Spoiler: no. No, it’s not.
Shortly after that scene, the movie takes a hard left turn for the worse: Willoughby, rather than die slowly of his illness, commits suicide and exits the film early. It’s a neat narrative trick, but unfortunately, it also unravels the moral ambiguity of the whole affair. Now, Mildred’s only option for antagonist is Dixon, and he’s not morally ambiguous at all. He’s portrayed as a disgusting, card-carrying homophobe and racist, one whose only sympathetic quality is his inability to understand when people are making fun of him. The only person who believes in him is Willoughby, which by all evidence seems like naïveté more than anything else. And once Willoughby is gone, Dixon goes on a terrifying violent rampage in which he beats an innocent man, throws him out a window, punches his young secretary in the face for good measure, and then beats the innocent man while he’s down (and potentially, um, dying). It’s horrifying to watch, but also exhilarating, because all you can think is, “Okay. This script gets it. There’s no coming back from that.”
But as it turns out, there is. I had very high hopes when Willoughby’s replacement, a dignified, no-nonsense black man named Abercrombie (Clarke Peters), immediately fires Dixon. I assumed that Abercrombie would play a large role in the plot, that he would sympathize with the injustice Mildred faced in a way that even Willoughby couldn’t. But instead, he all but disappears, and the movie shifts focus to Dixon, its least rounded character. Dixon, mere days after throwing poor Red out a window, magically has a change of heart after reading a letter from Willoughby that once again insists Dixon has “a good heart” (based on… something? Daddy issues? White male solidarity?). He works his ass off to solve Mildred’s case, all the while knowing that she most likely set him on fire. He doesn’t solve the case, but he makes such a concerted effort, even Abercrombie congratulates him. The man who begins the movie fresh off torturing a black man ends the movie forgiven by a convenient black guy substitute.
Some will argue that the script isn’t insensitive, it simply has “nuance,” and that it’s necessary to humanize Dixon’s character for the sake of good writing. I would actually agree with the latter point; very few real people resemble cartoon villains, and it’s always valuable to understand where a character is coming from. I would have appreciated a few scenes that help the audience understand why Dixon is the way that he is–he was rejected by his father, he’s emotionally dependent on and abused by his mother, etc, etc. Understanding his motivations is enough to humanize him, and the script could have accomplished this without asking us to ride along for his redemption arc, without asking us to forgive him even a little bit, without asking us to take his perspective in the last act at the expense of all others, even Mildred.
For the record, I’m a firm believer in the possibility of redemption. But even if a violent bigot is theoretically capable of redemption, it wouldn’t happen in the span of a few days and a freak arson incident. Dixon’s arc is, at best, a white liberal fantasy of redemption for racism (written without ever speaking to a black person, seemingly), and at worst a Trumpian wet dream about all those racist, violent cops being “good at heart.” Even if it’s true (because God only knows who’s “good at heart” or what that even means when you’ve done so much harm to the world), does it matter? And is that the story that should be told, especially right now?
That was rhetorical, but feel free to answer if you’d like, Keets…
I’m definitely willing to argue this story should be told, and right now is the best time, but I’m not at all sure it’s a story of redemption. My read of the film is that it is meant to be explicitly political, and that its numerous representational infelicities (I very much agree with all of the points you made there) are specifically intended to make the medicine go down smoother for the intended audience: white Trumpist middle-Americans.
Three Billboards presents an America entirely without justice, and I think that’s pretty much the entire point. The titular billboards are exactly a demand for justice, and we spend the entire movie waiting for that particular act of justice: retribution for the brutal murder of Mildred’s daughter.
I don’t think it’s an accident at all that the mechanism of Dixon’s redemption arc is supposed to be his providing that justice—he thinks he’s sacrificing his dignity to get evidence the soldier was the murderer—and that he fails in the attempt: DNA evidence and the soldier’s service record prove he couldn’t have committed the murder (at least of Mildred’s daughter). Once again: Dixon fails to complete the act that he clearly thinks will act as his penance, that will prove he’s a good cop and good person after all. Having failed, is he really redeemed?
That one, I think, is to be left as a question. As you point out, the film establishes early on and very clearly that Dixon has been and continues to be awful, and prepares him as the key antagonist. He tortured a black man in the jail before we meet him, and on-screen he almost kills the billboard-owner, Red Welby, in his rage at Willoughby’s suicide. Even worse, the replacement sheriff, Abercrombie, fails to provide the justice Dixon so richly deserves, inexplicably choosing to stop at just firing him after the assault, when he clearly belongs in jail. It’s left to Mildred, in the end, to deliver punishment, but even she does so by accident, having tried to make sure the police station was empty before firebombing it.
Dixon has a sincere and permanent (at least through the end of the film) change of heart in the sheriff’s office that night, brought on by Willoughby’s suicide note. Immediately thereafter he is literally burned alive and left permanently disfigured, which along many dimensions is harsher punishment than our justice system would ever subject him to for his numerous crimes. So: Dixon has been harshly and somewhat miraculously punished, and equally miraculously has been rehabilitated from his brutal inclinations. Isn’t this justice?
I think the film argues it isn’t, and does so by making every other part of the plot and subplots various examples of injustice. Willoughby is clearly an honorable man, and is publicly shamed for not solving an unsolvable case; he is a good father and husband and is taken from his family at an incredibly young age by (mostly) cancer. His wife is present and supportive, and is denied an opportunity to say goodbye by his suicide. There is, of course, the main plot, in which the murderers of Mildred’s daughter are never found or punished. Red Welby is brutally beaten by Dixon, and receives no compensation whatsoever. Denise, Mildred’s co-worker, is arrested and held on a trumped-up drug charge only to put pressure on Mildred. James (Peter Dinklage) supports Mildred consistently, to the point of fabricating an alibi for her, and in return receives only ridicule. No character in the film receives a moment of justice, ever, and this must force us to realize that even Dixon’s arc, which has the shape of justice, is only a parody of it.
Dixon was punished and rehabilitated, but there wasn’t justice—we feel that even if Mildred has chosen to forgive him, we can’t, and more to the point, the victims of his crimes (Red, the unnamed black man tortured in his cell, doubtless many others before the movie begins) have not been given satisfaction for the way they were treated. He tries to make a grand gesture by at least making justice possible for Mildred and her daughter, and fails at that.
The reason why what Dixon went through wasn’t justice, and why he doesn’t merit our absolution, is that the State (or the Polity, to be more broad) never judged him and found him guilty. Judgment is the ingredient missing from his punishment and rehabilitation, and its absence is also the through-tune in the injustices of every other subplot in the film. Without the active judgment and intervention of a just State, all that can exist is a chaotic sequence of revenges and assaults, some deserved, some not, and none of which does anything but provoke more chaos.
This, I think, is the film’s political agenda: to present America as a country without justice, particularly in how it treats its citizens of color, and the citizens of the countries touched by its wars. It aims to present in Dixon and the other deputies inescapable evidence that being an officer of the law doesn’t make you an instrument of justice, and in Willoughby and Abercrombie an illustration that a law system that tolerates the injustice of individuals can become systemically unjust. The fact that black characters are entirely marginal and mostly voiceless isn’t great, but their persistent presence on the margins of the film is meant to remind the target audience that the injustice suffered by Mildred, the tough-talking, white, and highly sympathetic lead, is only one example of the injustices tolerated by the system we live in.
I stand by all of my earlier points, but I do think that your argument about the philosophical underpinnings of the film–which point towards nihilism and randomness–is its best defense. For all its faults, the movie does a pitch-perfect job of bringing the viewer into its world, which is full of good people who suffer, bad people who get away with murder, and the morally ambiguous Mildred, who achieves catharsis but still not justice. I buy all of that, but only to a point. I think that’s why I enjoyed the movie so much while I was watching it, but didn’t think it held up once I left the theater. The film only works if you are engrossed in its warped, nihilistic logic.
I could actually believe that McDonagh’s intent was to portray a world without justice, especially for women and people of color. I could also accept the argument that Dixon’s arc isn’t one of redemption in the actual text of the film (although it feels like one just by virtue of taking his perspective so heavily, which remains super problematic), since that last scene is so morally ambiguous. But I just don’t trust that McDonagh had creative control over the bulk of his Trumpian-friendly decisions, or that he actively viewed them as concessions; if his play The Cripple of Inishmaan is any indication, ableist and otherwise politically incorrect humor is just sort of his jam.
I intellectually understand the value of the bait-and-switch for Trump country–even if catering to them at all strikes me as a very ethically ambiguous decision in itself. But I think there is a way to humanize oppressed people for the intended audience without playing into their bigotry. It’s a very thin tightrope walk, but my counterexample would be Friday Night Lights. FNL showed a genuine love for a very conservative region and culture (I get tears in my eyes every time Riggins says “Texas Forever,” and I’ve never even been to Texas), but was still wholeheartedly interested in the black and female experience–at times even more than the white male experience. There are women and POC playing huge roles from the start, and by the time you get to the fifth season, you realize that the writers have pulled a bait-and-switch: drawing viewers in with football and white guys and then locating the heart of the show primarily in female and POC characters like Tami and Vince. The only way to humanize oppressed peoples is to actually show their humanity, which is why I thought there was such a missed opportunity in Abercrombie.
I liked this movie. I thought the black humor struck an absolutely brilliant tone (when it wasn’t at the expense of POC or disabled people), and that the feeling of impotent anger in the writing really speaks to our time in a visceral way. But as long as we’re talking about its cultural context, if Three Billboards wins Best Picture over a film like Get Out, which portrayed violence against black bodies in a brilliantly humanizing way, would feel like adding insult to injury.
Completely agree—this is not the Best Picture of the year.
Quite simply, making a movie about systemic injustice in 2017, and making it about poor(ish) white folks, isn’t and can’t be right or good or Best. It can only be political, and so I think the value you assign to the film depends entirely on your sense of the urgency and efficacy of its political message.
To me, a straight white man possessed of every form of privilege scientists have so far discovered names for, this message does seem urgent, and at least potentially efficacious, which makes me think it’s fair to call Three Billboards a great movie for this moment, but not the Best one. The comparison to Get Out is incredibly apt, because one (of many) spectacular achievement of that film is to take a sociopolitical context as its raw material and fashion out of it a self-justifyingly dramatic narrative. Get Out makes the political personal, and thereby timeless, while Three Billboards makes the personal political, and therefore momentary.
There is a fair amount of existential despair packed into my calling Three Billboards a great movie: I believed in the political speech of FNL at the time, around 2010 and the few years after. Then, the most urgent political message seemed to be creating empathy and identification with the experiences of women and people of color in a society still structurally biased against them, even as the forms of lip-service towards marginalized communities became ever more elaborate. Today, in a society with a suddenly-discovered willingness to accept and applaud outright racism in public speech and policy, it seems much more urgent to get the point across that in the phrase “person-of-color torturing”, the real problem isn’t with the first word but the second.
All of which to say that I hope the moment in which the content of Three Billboards seems at all necessary or even justifiable rapidly passes us by. But also that Frances McDormand gets to make another award speech on Sunday, because those are fun.