Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Awards Season Darling or Controversial Mess?

Director: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones & Lucas Hedges

Martin McDonagh is known for his rather twisted, dark comedy style of film, as seen in the 2008 crime drama-comedy, In Bruges. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, also carries this unique style, but this time around McDonagh is working with a far more serious (and in the current climate in Hollywood, topical) social issue. The film centres on bereaved mother Mildred Hayes (played exceptionally by Frances McDormand), whose daughter Angela was raped and murdered about seven months prior to the events of the film. With zero progress being made in her daughter’s case, Mildred is sick of waiting around. She rents three large billboards on the edge of the town of Ebbing, Missouri, and writes a rather blunt message to the Head of Police, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). While Willoughby manages to deal with this issue rather gracefully, his colleague Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) does not take it sitting down. He engages in an all-out war with Mildred as he feels her actions are painting the police in a bad light (but no doubt also because she calls out his rather questionable treatment of black people in the past). The film centres mainly around a brash and often humorous back-and-forth between Mildred and the police, that ultimately tells quite a powerful story about how sexual assault cases so often go down.

First of all, it is important to highlight that in what the film was trying to do (or at least what we can assume it was trying to do), and that was to draw attention to how poorly handled rape cases can be. While the police may think about the situation rationally, in that they cannot be bogged down by this case where evidence is futile, that attitude is of no help to a grieving mother who knows that some vile human being roams free who not only murdered her daughter, but sexually assaulted her in her last moments. McDonagh’s mother character was powerful and McDormand brought everything that was required to the role. Mildred Hayes is, for lack of a better phrase, a badass. She takes no crap from all the people (mainly men) in her life trying to tell her to move on, and that her ‘stunt’ was a waste of time, and that she is being too brash about the whole thing. She is the perfect illustration of a woman who is no doubt hardened by her tragic loss – she is cold and bites back ferociously when anyone attempts to shut her down. However, her hope that someday she will find justice gives her just enough humanity to push her on. Mildred is far from likable, but McDonagh managed to create a realistically gritty woman who is brought to life incredibly by McDormand. She balances a sharp tongue, with an incorrigible attitude and a huge heart, in spite of some of her more questionable antics in the film. You stand with her throughout, hoping just as hard as she does that justice will be found for this tragic case that strikes home with so many of us.

As mentioned already, the film seemed to do what it was supposed to do, and it did that very well. From my interpretation, it was supposed to draw attention to sexual assault cases that are left open, that remain unsolved or lack the evidence needed to convict anyone. It was also supposed to draw attention to how people tend to turn a blind eye to these cases, whether the police, or regular people who think it’s not something that should be discussed. The general reaction to the billboards seems to suggest that most people are not too keen on having the words ‘Raped while murdered’ displayed so plainly outside their humble town. In this regard, the film succeeds. The controversy arises from other social problems that seem almost dismissed. And this is where things start to go downhill for Three Billboards.

Officer Dixon, played admittedly very well by Sam Rockwell, is the source of the controversy surrounding this film. Mildred Hayes’ in her take-no-crap manner, is not shy to call him out on his treatment of black people in the past. However, that seems to be the only attempt to ‘call out’ this issue. There is no doubt that Dixon is problematic, and of course no doubt that this is deliberate. It is him who reacts quite viscerally to the billboards, while Officer Willoughby who is named and shamed on them, seems to take it in his stride, and this kind of lands Dixon in the role as the antagonist. He wants Mildred Hayes stopped, and the lengths he goes to are questionable. The issue with this film is not, however, the horrible things that Dixon does or is said to have done, but rather this perceived idea that the audience are supposed to move on from what he does without question, as a result of his moment of redemption. Without giving away too much, there is a degree of forgiveness expected for this character for doing something admittedly important, but arguably expected, and definitely not enough to simply write off all his previous offences as a racist, violent, bully of a man. This leaves a lot hanging as while it is important for directors to deal with topical issues tastefully, is it acceptable to use other, just as volatile issues almost as part of the comic relief, and then ultimately dismiss them?

In an attempt to narrate an important and current societal issue, which I believe he does very well, McDonagh does seem to almost toy a little bit insensitively with other social issues that wind up not being addressed correctly throughout the film. It is important to say that taking this film at face value, which I did upon watching it, I found it to be powerful, darkly funny, and an excellent summary of a static case that doesn’t seem to be progressing forward any time soon. I guess the question to ask in regards to this film is did it achieve what it was trying to do well enough to simply let it away with the controversial moves it made. For me, given that these issues did not initially register with me upon watching the movie, I would have to say that it did. However, a bigger question then arises – should a film receiving this much critical acclaim be allowed to get away with this behaviour? It will never be a quiet year at the Academy Awards.


Ciara Dillon – Film Editor

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