In Criticism of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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“Well, did you enjoy it?”

I laugh. “Truthfully? I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it. It was a bit of an emotional beating.” A pause. “Yeah.”

Reflection, reviews and numerous discussions with friends and family haven’t changed the initial impression that Martin McDonagh’s latest film (which I’m reluctant to label a comedy) left. Picking up 4 Golden Globes and 5 BAFTAs, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has drawn a plethora of reviews that range from claims of genius to (the fewer and further between) accusations of being “flippant and irresponsible”. Let’s examine some of the more considered opinions.

There’s a lot to like here. Exquisite acting, quiet and brilliant explorations of family dynamics – in particular that between mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) and son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). Mildred’s role as mother plays second fiddle, however, to her occupation in being as big a thorn as possible in the side of the Ebbing police force. In the earlier parts of the film particularly, McDormand’s character is refreshingly unapologetic in her attack of the establishment that permits sexual harassment to go unpunished so frequently and that disproportionately harms women. McDonagh also treats us to some of the most moving marriages of music and film seen on the big screen in recent years.

Yet not all aspects of the Oscar contender seemed to have been afforded the same level of attention. The use of all three black characters has been broadly criticised as a feature of plot progression and little else. Denise, Mildred’s friend who is disingenuously detained for a month shows little acknowledgement of this when returning to aid Mildred in her war on the police, despite having been arrested as an act of vengeance by an officer with a history of torturing black folks.

The aforementioned officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), as one would perhaps suspect, is the main course at the critics’ table. It’s impossible to read an article on the subject without the words (apparently self-aware) “redemption arc” popping up, and this is the main topic of debate. Three Billboards is hailed as being nuanced, and in some respects rightfully so. Much is said of the Hayes’ grief with delicate shooting of facial and bodily expression. But an abusive male with a troubled background – wait for it – that finds vindication after finally seeing consequences to his actions? It’s a cliché, and one that’s coming for miles, as incredulous as you may have been while watching. Gene Demby, host on the NPR Code Switch podcast, tweeted “Racist violent cops have family drama and interiority… yeah, everyone does.” This is an important part of the wider criticism that the film portrays Dixon as a character we eventually empathize with and support, despite his horrific history. McDonagh argues that the officer isn’t redeemed, and there is truth in Ryan Gilbey’s words: “sometimes the audience has to be trusted to work out for itself which attitudes are to be applauded in a movie”. However, the director’s decision to not include Dixon’s torturing episode and to use Woody Harrelson’s near-deity figure to imply Dixon’s goodness at heart could be argued to stir sympathy where there should be none. The focus afforded to Dixon in the latter part of the film feels unwarranted, and this all knocks on the door of a larger issue: that of a predominantly white, male critical establishment (and audience) which favourably distorts the merit of plots that draw on the internal struggles of imperfect white guys.

Criticism has further been directed at the role of James (Peter Dinklage), who’s afforded few lines that don’t aim for laughs or centre dismally on the fact that he has Dwarfism. Dinklage himself heavily lauded the script and McDonagh, but this does little to dispel the feeling that the actor has played far better parts (Finbar McBride in The Station Agent, for example). A recurrent theme in Three Billboards is the apparent comedy residing in a lack of intelligence, ridiculous to the extent of being awkward. As Eva Squires wrote in The Guardian, James’ line on departing the restaurant in tears, “I didn’t have to come and hold your ladder,” prevents the character from moving beyond comic relief and into the realms of audience understanding. The bimbo that the girlfriend of Mildred’s ex-husband is depicted as has similarly asinine lines, and the audience’s laughter at her infantile interjections gave an uncomfortable feeling of drawling superiority. The champion of this is Mildred, whose overarching moral quest is certainly commendable, but who is far from exemplary in her treatment of other characters in the film.

It’s worth recognising that this film makes a big point about the imperfections of, well, everybody, and the ending does well to make the viewer question whether they should be on anyone’s side after all.  It’s a touch absurd and we’re not always sure whose eyes we’re watching through. But McDonagh’s humour has far more success through the too-close-to-home exchanges between Mildred and Chief Willoughby than the gags played out by stupid and the short characters. A wrenching and entertaining film, but one that provides a welcome iteration to the conversation about representation in the world of cinema.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), directed by Martin McDonagh, is distributed in the UK by 20th Century Fox, certificate 15.

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