Since the release of his feature film debut In Bruges (2008), Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh has become known for his razor-sharp wit and pitch black comedy, finding humanity within the deplorable characters he places at the forefront of his stories. McDonagh’s third film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, puts these twisted characters against a more serious backdrop, dealing with themes of grief, revenge and police injustice.
After her daughter is ‘raped while dying’, grief-stricken mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) pays for three billboards asking the police why her daughter’s murder has yet to be solved, singling out police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for his inaction. Angered by Mildred’s lack of respect for the police department, racist sheriff deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) sets out on a path to make Mildred Hayes’ life even more of a living hell, going above and beyond to take down those closest to her. Peppered with flourishes of that signature McDonagh sense of humour, Three Billboards… is the antidote to the overly earnest and dour Oscar-bait that tends to be released this time of year.
While the title to McDonagh’s latest film hardly rolls off the tongue, it is the perfect moniker for this crime drama, with the billboards a looming threat over each of the main characters in different ways: For the police department, the billboards are a constant reminder of their inadequacy and failure to protect their community, for Mildred’s depressed son Robbie Hayes (Lucas Hedges) and his estranged father (John Hawkes) they’re a reminder of the gruesome and untimely murder of Angela Hayes. Symbolically, they represent a mother’s unwavering commitment to finding those responsible for her daughters rape and murder, a crime for which Mildred feels partly responsible. McDonagh uses the billboards as the through-line of his darkly comic script and as a way of grounding his larger-than-life characters in a common situation.
Although Three Billboards is not an overtly anti-police film, McDonagh does take the opportunity to call into question many aspects of U.S. policing that have come under scrutiny in recent years including racial profiling, harsher sentencing for people of colour and police brutality. These themes are mostly shown through the lens of deputy Dixon, an openly racist man, accused of torturing an African American suspect while in custody. In recent weeks, McDonagh has come under fire for placing such a deplorable character squarely at the centre of his film, which has gone on to win multiple awards including Best Picture (Drama) and Best Supporting Actor for Rockwell at the Golden Globes .
The complaints largely focus around the insensitivity of attempting to find humanity in such a character, given the current state of race relations in the United States. While Deputy Dixon commits heinous acts throughout Three Billboards, and redemption is hinted at towards the end, he is never made out to be a hero. Instead, McDonagh attempts to understand why a man like Dixon ends up the way he is; showing his poor economic background, sheltered life and dependence on alcohol, but never using any of these as an excuse for his behaviour.
At times, Three Billboards misses a genuinely sympathetic protagonist; while the audience certainly feels Mildred Hayes’ pain and understands why she would go to such extreme measures to get to the bottom of her daughter’s murder, McDonagh blurs the line between hero and anti-hero to such a degree that sometimes, it feels as if the ends do not justify the means. Presenting Chief Willoughby, arguably the only good-hearted character in the film, as such a well-liked and respected figure within the Ebbing community, Mildred’s actions seem almost antagonistic at points. In addition, one excellently directed sequence involving Deputy Dixon seems so hyper-realistic in its violence that it almost detracts from the more grounded tone of the rest of the film, as if it was shoe-horned in for shock value alone.
In recent years, the run-up to the Academy Awards has been increasingly dominated by inspiring biopics and gloomy dramas vying for that coveted Best Picture award, so it is surprising and refreshing to see a film as daring as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri leading the 2018 awards race. While Martin McDonagh’s latest offering never quite strikes the same balance between grit and comedy as his debut, it is a worthy addition to the oeuvre of one of the most unique auteurs working today. Stand-out performances from Francis McDormand and Sam Rockwell, who disappear completely into their roles, allows Three Billboards to feel grounded in spite of it’s uncomfortably dark subject matter. While occasionally, the lines between good and bad are blurred beyond comprehension, this is likely McDonagh’s intention; in life, no one is entirely good or entirely bad, and importantly, no one should be beyond redemption.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is out now.