Year of release: 2017 Directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage.
When I was in undergrad, (longer ago than I wish to acknowledge) I took a humanities course for which we read Antigone, and for a classroom of 21st century college students, it was very easy to interpret the play as the story of a noble heroine standing up for justice and truth against a tyrannical ruler. It was quite eye-opening when one of the extra reading assignments (I don’t remember who wrote it) about Sophocles’ tragedy emphasized that the name of the play is Antigone, and thus Sophocles is saying she is the tragic character with a fatal flaw. That same reading went on to say that the ancient Greeks would have viewed both Antigone and Creon (the tyrannical king) as equally wrong and equally right, because they both dealt in extreme absolutes, refusing to the see the truth to the other’s side.
Mildred Hayes (an excellent Frances McDormand) is a similar protagonist to Antigone. Her daughter Angela was raped and murdered several months ago, the Ebbing, Missouri police department has come nowhere near catching the killer, and there are several prominent officers on the force with a notorious reputation for harassing and torturing black citizens. When she notices three unused billboards just outside of town, she rents them to advertise the incompetency and corruption of the police with the following statements: “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”
Considering the recent news stories about police brutality and how often sexual predators get away with their crimes, it is all too easy to sympathize with Mildred. It is also easy to criticize Chief Willoughby (an outstanding Woody Harrelson) for being too lenient with the more violent and racist cops in his force, most notably Sam Rockwell’s explosive Officer Dixon, because as Mildred says, “the buck has to stop somewhere.”
However, as true as Mildred’s statement is, Harrelson’s performance clearly reveals there is more to Willoughby than a lazy, overly lenient cop. He followed every lead he got in the murder case, and every single one turned up a dead end. He’s dying of cancer, which preoccupies enough of his time that he makes the mistake of allowing the worse officers to continue working for him.
In the first instance of the film turning the tables on the audience’s expectations, when Willoughby mentions his cancer to Mildred, she bluntly responds, “I know; the whole town knows.” Shocked that she would still put up the billboards, Mildred indifferently responds, “They wouldn’t be as effective after you croak,” a morbid joke Willoughby appreciates, indicating the two of them are not that different, which is reinforced when he later returns the joke with an even harsher one.
That sort of dark humor, a trademark of Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh, is scattered throughout the entire film. However, unlike his last two dark comedies with tragic subject matter, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards is tragedy punctuated with jokes.
As a tragedy, the tragic flaw of all the characters is anger, and McDonagh indicts the audience for our own anger as well, at times stacking the deck to make that anger seem all the more justified. As I said, it is easy and natural to sympathize with Mildred, and Sam Rockwell’s nakedly racist and brutal Officer Dixon provides an easy villain to hate. However, as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) tells her, “All this anger only begets greater anger.”
That line is a succinct summary of what McDonagh is doing with Three Billboards, showing how the anger of Mildred toward the cops, the town towards her, school kids towards her son (Lucas Hedges), Dixon towards blacks, is all connected in a giant cycle making none of them that different. Even though some of that anger is justifiably motivated, when it escalates into rage, it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish from the racist anger motivating Dixon.
Shortly after Mildred first puts the billboards up, the local priest callously attempts to counsel her to take them down. She retorts with a vicious insult about the sex abuse scandal. As others have noted, it is the sort of line that often receives cheers, and it comes early enough in the film, while we’re still meant to sympathize completely with Mildred, that it is certainly possible McDonagh intended it that way. However, while the rage-fueled response may feel good to Mildred and to some viewers at the time it is delivered, the remainder of the film shows that what begins as righteous anger very rarely stays that way.
Personal Recommendation: A
Content advisory: Frequent obscene and profane language, harsh violence with considerable gore, occasional racist and homophobic epithets, frank discussion of rape MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment