Profane, devastating and hilarious; Martin McDonagh’s brutal and beautiful rendition of grief, loss and redemption make it a strong contender in the awards season, and one of my all time favourites.
It is a rare thing to make people laugh and cry moment to moment, ricocheting between feelings of complete devastation and hilarity. I have never found a film, nor any piece art, that achieves this delicate seesaw-ing in the way that McDonagh does in his masterpiece ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ (2017). It certainly deserves all seven of its Academy Award nominations.
The story begins when Mildred (Francis McDormand), a grieving mother, purchases advertising for three billboards in her small town of Ebbing, Missouri, which point blame at the town’s police for not solving her daughter’s murder case.
The film is characterized by its embrace of the imperfection of its characters, just as it embraces the darkest themes of sexual assault, abuse, murder, suicide and racism. Comedy is the last thing you would expect. And yet, this film will make you laugh.
McDonagh is a writer who tackles his themes head on. He presents the town of Ebbing with uncomfortable formidable realism; there are racist cops and police brutality pervades, Mildred (McDormand) is an outcast as a non-Church goer. Rumours circulate and dominate. The language of many characters is thick with profanity, Mildred (McDormand), not being the least of these. And yet there is something electric about this.
Why? Because the film does something brave and ultimately vilifying, it gives time to imperfect, complicated and at times repugnant characters. It gives time to see them in all their imperfection, and their ultimate growth and redemption.
The most notable case of such growth is the development of the cop Dixon, (Sam Rockwell). At the start of the film, we see black characters and Mildred condemn him rightfully for his maltreatment of a black man in his custody. But over the course of the film the character is given time and, led by the example of the benevolent Chief Willoughby, whom he idolizes, achieves redemption. As the writer and director McDonagh says himself, ‘there have to be moments when you glimpse something decent, something life affirming even in the most twisted character. That’s where the real art lies.’
But not everyone is a fan. In fact, many dislike the film for this very reason. For some critics, the film’s frank and insatiable appetite for its imperfect characters is a mistake. This may be reflected in the pattern of nominations the film did and didn’t get. As David Sims writes in The Atlantic, ‘Martin McDonagh, who received a writing nomination for Three Billboards, was left out of Best Director in favor of Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread, indicating that the film did not have quite the groundswell of support in every nomination branch that usually accompanies the frontrunner.’ Having said that, the film has achieved countless awards elsewhere. The three lead characters of the film are flawed in their own way. Mildred is profane and physically violent. Dixon abuses his power as a racist cop and, again, violent. Chief Willoughby himself wrestles with some of the most challenging themes in the story.
And yet, this film is funny. How?
Well, it sticks by some rules. First, whilst the rape of Mildred’s daughter is referred to, it is never visually realised, an important move on the director’s behalf to not fetishize or exploit sexual assault for the sake of shock and horror, as so many films and television shows make the mistake of doing.
Secondly, the racist meanderings of Dixon and others are shut down and condemned, initially by Mildred herself:
‘MILDRED: Seems like the local police department is too busy goin’ round torturing black folks to be bothered doing anything about solving actual crime…’
Later in a scene where the degraded Dixon is beaten in a bar brawl, two black punters are witness, a clear reverse in the power dynamic from the opening scenes. McDonagh presents the prejudices of the town, but condemns them.
Thirdly, the pace of the film doesn’t allow its viewers to stay in a moment of tragedy or comedy for too long. It flits between the two, giving a breath to one, then to the other, and frequently using tragic moments as a bounce pad for comedy. One example that comes to mind is after a tragic death of a character (I’ll refrain from spoiling). We are as an audience at a total loss, mortified. Cut straight to Dixon, dancing in his police gear as Abba plays through his headphones, whilst people in the background hear news of the death and fall to their knees. We never stay laughing or crying for too long, therein lies McDonagh’s magic timing.
Finally, I must conclude by hailing the feminism within the film, manifesting itself in the film’s heroine, Mildred. Francis McDormand’s unapologetic yet at times achingly gentle portrayal of a mother and woman is straight up genius. She is a figurehead for this ‘brilliantly chaotic year in which women have come forward en masse to say “no more” to misogyny and sexual violence.’ (Sara Stewart, New York Post). She seeks justice for her daughter, is unafraid of the town’s condemnation of her following her purchase of the billboards, and is, to my mind, wonderfully foul.
Mildred’s words to a news reporter who claims the case of her daughter is coming to an end are, when issuing from McDormand’s mouth, thrilling, hilarious, and for me, emboldening.
'MILDRED: This don’t put an end to shit, you fucking retard, this is just the fucking start, so why don’t you put that on your “Good Morning Missouri fucking Wake-Up Broadcast”, bitch!'
Watch the trailer here, then go watch the film.
I do not own these images, all credits go to the owning parties.