Martin McDonagh, a longtime playwright who has been quoted as saying he possesses a “respect for the whole history of films and a slight disrespect for theatre,” proved himself immediately in the former category with his feature debut, In Bruges. Going from that to Seven Psychopaths (a Guy Ritchie-esque sort of film in its quagmire of a gangster-related plot), McDonagh stacked his go-to actors for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in the form of Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell and Abbie Cornish. The only missing piece, of course, was Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, an intimidating, take no prisoners sort of woman who is primarily known in the community of Ebbing for being the mother of Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton), an adolescent who was brutally raped and murdered–her body burned and left to be discovered a little over half a year prior to when we meet Mildred.
Maybe a British person writing about the South in the United States is ill-advised. Well, actually, it’s definitely ill-advised. Which is probably why, now that the film will receive a wider audience thanks to its four wins at the Golden Globes, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is likely to experience the La La Land effect in terms of backlash. And this time, Get Out is the parallel to Moonlight. Not purely because of the obvious racial analogies, but because the awards-giving “powers that be” have chosen to favor McDonagh’s screenplay, which showcases such blatant disregard for seizing a pretty fucking ideal moment to touch on more than just the police’s negligence of a rape-murder case, but their sole drive seeming to stem from a love of abuse (yes, chiefly of black people).
But no, for McDonagh, this is only a story about a mother seeking justice for her daughter. And it comes to her, as though in a vision, just how to get said justice as she passes three dilapidated billboards on the back roads of the fictional Ebbing, Missouri, immediately introducing us to the entire catalyst for the drama in the first few frames. The initial billboard, the one they don’t show you in the previews, eventually reads: “Raped while dying.” It kind of feels like that’s what’s happening to the opportunity to eloquently address the racial divide in the South instead of tacking a little “hardy-har-har” tone to the dialogue (e.g. “How’s the nigger torturing business, Dixon?”) for the duration of the escalating-in-absurdity narrative.
But, as Chief Willoughby defends, “You get rid of all the cops that hate black people and you’d have three left. And they’d all hate gay people.” What can you do? Yuk yuk yuk. Might as well learn to live with it unless you’ve got the $5,000 a month to cover enough billboard advertising to stir up some controversy. And if you’re black, stirring up that controversy might secure you a fate even worse than being thrown out of a window by the alcoholic and belligerent Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell)–as is the case with Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the boy at the advertising “company” who “allows” Mildred to custom create her message without reining her in.
As the town becomes increasingly up in arms over the crudeness of Mildred’s stunt–especially seeing as how everyone knows Chief Willoughby is dying of cancer–increasingly hate-motivated antics ensue, some of which are never really explained (like why an ominous man shows up to the gift shop where Mildred works to threaten her).
Then again, lack of explanation is sort of the bread and butter of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Just go with it, McDonagh must have silently willed the as of yet unfulfilled audience while writing the script. Another case in point of “not really explained” is why Chief Willoughby’s wife is Australian and living in this bumfuck, godforsaken town. Where could they have possibly met? What reason could she have possibly had for being there? It wasn’t a study abroad program, that’s for sure. Maybe her character’s existence was all just so she could deliver the line, “You got a real nice cock, Mr. Willoughby” in her accent. Because only in that accent would it would vaguely be acceptable. Which, no, it was not. Not even in a charming Australian lilt. It’s just plain uncomfortable, nonsensical and a complete non sequitur. Like the entire film.
The presence of James, naturally played by Peter Dinklage, a dwarf (which, as In Bruges highlighted, McDonagh is fond of as a plot device) who shows up at intermittent moments of the story, is possibly the zenith of this film having nary a clue of what it’s supposed to be doing. One can’t help but think of Living in Oblivion, when Dinklage as Tito the Dwarf seethes, “Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who’s had a dream with a dwarf in it? No! I don’t even have dreams with dwarves in them. The only place I’ve seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like this! ‘Oh make it weird, put a dwarf in it!’ Everyone will go, ‘Woah, this must be a fuckin’ dream, there’s a fuckin’ dwarf in it!’ Well I’m sick of it!” Likewise, James seems to be all two-dimensionality, yet another means for us to see just how cruel and unflappable Mildred can be in the face of a plea for common decency. It’s enough to prompt her ex to say to her at the restaurant where he’s dining with his nineteen-year-old girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving)–quoting her quoting a bookmark no less–“Anger begets anger.” Do you think that hooey makes one fuck of a difference to Mildred? Of course not. This is the only redeeming quality of the film: that no matter what, you cannot change Mildred. And every time a chance for redemption even remotely presents itself to her, she sends a Molotov cocktail its way (sometimes literally). Unfortunately, what’s endearing in her character is not so enjoyable in McDonagh’ screenplay, so blatantly clueless about any semblance of realism in the American South. No, what Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is all about is demonstrating McDonagh’s love of the repartee, or rather, A dominating a conversation with B (i.e. Mildred laying into the priest for the Church being no different than one of the notorious Los Angeles gangs that allows members to be prosecuted for crimes they didn’t commit because they’re still “culpable” for being part of the very institution that furnishes such crimes). While that might make for a great play, it doesn’t so much for a movie. Least of all a Golden Globe-winning one.