Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ★★★

“The joke is on you, Mildred. Haha, and I hope they do not kill you.”

Since the admission of New Mexico and Arizona to the Union in 1912, the physical center of the lower 48 states has been located just south of the Nebraska-Kansas border, in the town of Lebanon. This is distinct from the geographic center of the United States as a whole—since the admission of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959, that point has sat in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, just east of the Wyoming border. But northern Kansas more closely approximates the notion of “Middle America”—a land far away from the coasts, from big cities. A land where normal folk ply their trades and raise their families and deal with the day-to-day of life in all its beautiful ugliness. A land where things are “real,” as though things are any more or less real in one place than in another.

Another approximation of the country’s center exists in Wright County, Missouri, a little over 11 miles southwest of the town of Plato. Plato is a tiny hamlet in neighboring Texas County, with only 109 people to its name as of the 2010 U.S. Census. It, like Wright County, sits in south-central Missouri at what the U.S. Census Bureau refers to as the “mean center of population”—if weights were distributed around the country in accordance with population, the point of balance would rest near Plato.

This epicenter of the populace’s physical distribution—a place that sounds symbolically profound while in practice meaning very little—is the perfect setting for Martin McDonagh’s acrid comedy-drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It has everything: As a slave state at the center of the Missouri Compromise and a contested border state during the Civil War, it encapsulates America’s dark and complicated racial history; due to its geographical location and history, it can rightly claim both Southern and Midwestern roots, avoiding the Deep South clichés of an Ebbing, Mississippi or the repressive niceties of an Ebbing, Minnesota; and as the metaphysical site of “Middle America,” it lays claim to an authenticity that is ultimately hollow. “Plato” might be too overtly philosophical and attention-seeking an appellation, though one doubts that for a film eager to reference Oscar Wilde, Flannery O’Connor, and the word “betwixt.” More likely the real residents of a real place might take offense at their depiction as a teeming hive of screenwriterly tics. So “Ebbing” will have to do—and as a synonym for decaying, it is nothing if not unsubtle.

Not that unsubtlety is really the problem. Three Billboards is blunt, to be sure, but so are plenty of great works of art—Citizen Kane, proverbial greatest film ever made, is about a man whose dying reverie is for a totem of lost childhood innocence, which is not exactly a masterstroke of ambiguity. So no, in a film where an angry, grieving mother erects blood-red billboards to ask “RAPED WHILE DYING” “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?” “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?,” unsubtlety isn’t really McDonagh’s problem; unbelievability is. There is scarcely a moment in Three Billboards that rings true. It is a smorgasbord of manipulations and contrivances, of plotting lapses and inconsistencies, of tonal whiplash held aloft by an impressive cast doing yeoman’s work to make everything hang sufficiently together such that, in the moment, it goes down smoothly enough (itself no small problem—that a film described by its creator as “deliberately messy and difficult” should be only mildly more discomfiting during ingestion than, say, John Wick suggests that one or more marks have been missed). Whatever surface pleasures it may offer (and its acting and dialogue offer a good number of them), reflection—something this “more thoughtful” film is ostensibly supposed to inspire—does Three Billboards few favors.

**Lest I be accused of too much subtlety of my own—highly unlikely—the reader is hereby warned that spoilers follow.**

The chief complaint against Three Billboards as its awards-season momentum has strengthened has been one of, if not overt racism, at least racial indifference. And it’s not hard to see why. Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, answering the question “What if Clancy Wiggum, but angry?”), an overt racist raised by another overt racist, transforms over the film’s duration from its nominal villain/comic relief—the bigoted but also deeply stupid cop too busy cowing to his domineering mother and pining for his boss’ approval to solve the rape and murder of Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton)—to its hero-in-the-making. To Three Billboards’ credit, this is not uncomplicated. The film’s closing conversation makes clear that it is at least skeptical of the type of vigilante justice that Dixon and Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, in a terrific performance) are contemplating. Whether and to what degree Dixon’s arc is redemptive is both amusing—McDonagh has the man literally walk through fire and come out the other side dramatically changed, as if more signposting were needed—and a bit beside the point. Dixon is widely known to have tortured a black suspect while in custody, an act for which he has faced no repercussions beyond some name-calling. Yet his path toward...let’s say “reclamation” involves little more than a note telling him that deep down he’s good, just angry, and assaulting a stranger in a bar with a squint-and-you-can-call-it-noble purpose. There is scant sense that Dixon has wrestled with his bigotry, or even more generally with his hatred (the thing Police Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, also wonderful) tells him he needs to abandon in favor of love). Shades of grey and all, but, although he is not “some sort of redeemed hero of the piece,” as McDonagh put it, he is without doubt placed squarely on that path.

This is disquieting for a few reasons, none of which really has anything to do with whether a person can be racist but also harbor good qualities or whether a racist can change its spots. (For the record, sure and sure, but without being given a compelling reason to care, both uninteresting statements of the obvious.) For one thing, there is the strange alchemy by which Dixon becomes the (possibly anti-)hero of Three Billboards while Mildred—its lead in terms of inciting incident and quantity of dialogue—is relegated to a supporting role in his journey. It’s a strange maneuver from a film that casts itself as a story of female rage at a world of men who mistreat and abuse and ignore women—a maneuver made all the more peculiar by the fact that Mildred’s eventual collusion with Dixon has the effect of sullying her while it lifts him up. To be sure, Mildred has committed her fair share of bad acts, ranging from empathy deficiency to full-fledged assault. But Mildred’s behavior has also been positioned as the response of a mourning mother frustrated at the world’s acceptance of her daughter’s rape and murder as just the price of a young girl going out by herself—her actions test the audience’s sympathy, but never quite break it. Yet it’s one thing to assault a dentist by way of self-defense, or even to kick a snide teenager in the gonads. It’s quite another to determine to murder someone for a crime you don’t even know has been committed at all, let alone committed by him. Mildred, by Three Billboards’ end, has gone off the deep end, while Dixon—having made the same choice as her (and suggested it to her in the first place)—has climbed out of it.

For another, Dixon’s treatment by McDonagh’s script does not happen in a vacuum, but exists alongside Three Billboards’ handling of its black characters. There aren’t many, to be sure. There’s Abercrombie (Clarke Peters), the new chief who replaces Willoughby. And there’s Jerome (Darrell Britt-Gibson), who helps hang (and re-hang) the titular billboards. Most prominently, there is Denise (Amanda Warren), Mildred’s co-worker at the local gift shop. Denise serves three basic functions: (1) She is Mildred’s friend, so that we are reminded that not everyone in this godforsaken village despises the abrasive Mildred (see also: James (Peter Dinklage, utterly wasted). James is short. Did you know he’s short? Wait a moment and McDonagh will remind you.). (2) She is, by virtue of being Mildred’s friend, arrested on a trumped-up marijuana possession charge and held for what is an indeterminate amount of time, though it is certainly multiple days, so as to apply pressure to Mildred to take down the billboards. (3) She watches, concerned, while a nameless, pointedly non-local creep beats up Dixon in a barroom brawl (engineered by Dixon in a ploy to swipe the man’s DNA for testing), providing an audience-identifiable point of concern for the poor disgraced cop. That’s it, really. She is a prop who serves a few plot functions, and nothing more.

None of this is inherently problematic. One can see where all of this might be construed as the messiness of real life, and God knows that an artist should be free to tell the story he wants to tell without having to tell others too—indeed, trying to tell both Dixon’s and Mildred’s story is part of McDonagh’s trouble. But McDonagh’s lack of any sense of tone, of place, of the gravity of the issues he is choosing to address scuttles the enterprise. No one forced McDonagh to have his characters repeatedly bring up Dixon’s police brutality, or even to have him be an abusive cop—Dixon could merely have been dim-witted and hot-headed. But McDonagh made those choices—in a film set in Missouri of all places—without seemingly any idea of their import or of how to address them. Similarly, no one forced McDonagh to make Denise a prop rather than a character, or to make her black, or to have her be a black woman arrested on phony drug charges—Denise could have been any race, or could have been a black woman fully fleshed out, or could have been arrested for a phony overdue parking ticket. But McDonagh made those choices—to use the commonplace real-world analogue of an African-American jailed for drug charges that wouldn’t trouble the dreams of a Caucasian middle-class suburban teen, and then to have Denise’s first thought upon release be that she should rush to Mildred’s side, smile wide as the ring of a bell, unfazed by her stint in jail and ready to do whatever Mildred needs. The spectacle of Denise materializing beside Mildred after days of imprisonment as though she had done nothing more than run to the drug store for a snack is bewildering. And its error is totally unforced—McDonagh evoking everyday tragedy for a dash of realism, but with no clue as to what that might mean or how that might appear.

That, ultimately, is Three Billboards’ Achilles heel. McDonagh, he of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, is a man of not inconsiderable talent, as his multiple Tony nominations suggest. But he is a denizen of unreality—he exists in a vaguely Tarantinian, vaguely Coenesque world that resembles life on Earth in only the most tangential of ways. And that is wonderful! The patently fabricated can often yield great insights about the world around us, just as the doggedly unartificial can often plod somberly to an early, suffocation-induced grave. While McDonagh is certainly no Tarantino or Coen, his prior films have essentially been platonic screwball comedies, gussied up with crime-ridden violence and plenty of cursing and wearing shamelessly McDonagh’s background in theater. They have intentionally borne no resemblance to the world around them. Three Billboards, by contrast, is set not in a medieval European tourist town or in the improbable daydream of Southern California but in “Middle America”—the very center of the country, where the real world lives in all its “deliberately messy and difficult” reality. McDonagh’s overt theatricality, his leaden plot machinations, his treatment of characters as inconsistently drawn vessels for his own thoughts plays much less well in a film set closer to a recognizable place and meant to address recognizable (and thorny) issues. (To make matters worse, McDonagh is a London-born Irishman and lapsed Catholic who, quite plainly, has no idea what life in small-town Southern/Midwestern America is like. Perhaps Three Billboards Outside Dingle would have been no better, but its domestic perspective might have had the advantage of not incorporating hot-button issues of which it had little understanding.)

McDonagh’s shallowness, disconnect from the reality he purports to examine, and inept tonal control is evident from start to finish. Momma Dixon (Sandy Martin), Dixon’s cruel and overbearing mother, also watches the melancholy, oneiric art-horror film Don’t Look Now. Why? Not because there is any sense that this particular woman might actually do that, but because McDonagh wants the viewer agog at the chasm between high and low. Mildred’s ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), beat her until she managed to leave him—a fact that their son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), doesn’t doubt, though in a flashback Angela is skeptical—but his relationship with 19-year-old Penelope (Samara Weaving) is treated as a big, semi-scandalous joke. Is that because the cycle of domestic violence is sadly durable, another example of men mistreating women in a film about that topic? Not really—nobody bothers to warn Penelope whom she’s shacking up with, and Mildred, champion of women, only makes tasteless remarks about her age and her smell and admonishes Charlie to be nice to her. It’s just funny because, you know, Penelope is deeply stupid and takes life advice off of bookmarks. She even interrupts a violent domestic dispute involving a knife to use the potty! Life is messy and difficult, and so is this film—which perhaps explains why so much is made of 35-ish-year age difference between Penelope and Charlie while not one word is spoken of the over 20-year age difference between Chief Willoughby and his wife, Anne (Abbie Cornish). Just a beautiful Australian who quotes Oscar Wilde and ended up in America’s navel married to a cop, as you do. Messy. Difficult.

Further examples abound. Dixon is shown to be stupid not merely because he slurs his words and says “What?” in reply to “Hey fuckhead”—he also...wait for this, because you will not believe this could be the behavior of a grown man...reads comic books! I know! An adult man reading something widely reclaimed as a legitimate art form over the past thirty years? What a loser. (This bit of character enrichment, treated with roughly the same respect as Dixon’s racial beliefs, makes McDonagh’s defense that “we’re not making films for six-year-olds, we’re not making The Avengers” land even more thuddingly than it does at first glance.) Mildred, when confronted by the local priest about her billboards’ tastelessness, goes on a carefully practiced diatribe comparing the priest’s culpability for the Church’s sex abuse scandal to Los Angeles’ response to gang violence in the 1980s—a spiel no doubt close to the heart of the Irish Catholic McDonagh, but absolutely absurd coming from the Missourian Mildred. (Had he bothered to study the setting of his story, McDonagh might have learned that Missouri is only about 15-16% Catholic—well below the national average of 21%—and that the bulk of that Catholic population lies in the St. Louis Archdiocese, whose population is over 23% Catholic. That Mildred would be immersed in thought on the workings of the Catholic Church, or that a priest would hold an outsized role in Ebbing (he claims to have gotten an accurate representation of the town’s views via polling his parishioners) is, at best, unlikely. But why should that get in the way of a spitfire monologue that ends with Mildred, inspiring disregarder of tact, telling the clergyman to “get the fuck outta my kitchen,” even though they are quite visibly in her dining room and not in her kitchen—whether small- or large-scale, geography will not get in the way of McDonagh’s acid-dipped pen.)

Are we done? Hardly. For what purpose do Willoughby’s daughters exist? Why, solely so that he can curse in front of them, without prompting and repeatedly—isn’t he scandalous but also charmingly roguish, rough around the edges but with a heart of gold to pair with his pancreas of cancer? Why is Mildred explicitly styled to resemble Rosie the Riveter? Because she represents the women ready to do the hard work necessary to go to war (in this case, for her daughter/womankind). And if the iconic blue-collar factory worker costume she has adorned is far removed from Mildred’s work hawking porcelain figurines to wayward tourists, who really minds? I mean, Mildred is a well-drawn character meant to evoke a real flesh-and-blood person, not some sort of action heroine who puts on a uniform to model her rage and drive for vengeance, which are totally authentic and not an excuse for her to do and say bad things. Why is Mildred so surprised by the police force’s ineptitude when it seems to be par for the course in Ebbing, both under Willoughby’s rule and under his successor’s? After all, Mildred commits violent assault multiple times—not to mention arson—without facing anything more than a handful of questions and dubious looks, and Dixon commits attempted murder in full view of his new boss only to be allowed to wander free and in retention of his keys to the police station. Police accountability and propriety is important except when it’s irrelevant. Why does Abercrombie become incensed that the Ebbing cops might ask for something more than his unsubstantiated word that he is Willoughby’s replacement? Seems a perfectly reasonable request, until you bear in mind that Abercrombie must have an excuse to get into a verbal jousting match with Dixon—and since McDonagh thinks so little of Dixon’s attempted murder of Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) that it doesn’t even merit a night in the drunk tank, some other incitement, preferably of the strained verbal variety, proves necessary.

And the list goes on and on. What are we to make of the fact that the trio of billboards seemingly costs $5,000 per month to rent? The average monthly cost of a billboard in St. Louis is only $1,358 per month, putting the monthly cost of three at $4,074—surely the monthly cost of a set of billboards on an abandoned road in middle-of-nowhere Missouri would not outpace St. Louis, would it? Ah, but if you are from Ireland and need to quickly gin up a monetary quandary for your star (mostly so that you can have it cheekily resolved from beyond the grave), then of course Ebbing’s costs must be sky high! Why is billboard-overseer Red prominently reading Flannery O’Connor? Because McDonagh has not met a comparison he believes to be unflattering. And why is this nameless creep hanging around this small town in Missouri when he’s from Idaho, suggesting to Mildred that he takes offense at the impugning of Willoughby’s good name despite the lack of any relationship between them and sticking around long enough for Dixon to be unburned, get severely burned, get hospitalized for said burns, and get released from the hospital and all lingering bandages? Well, McDonagh has already written his climax and, hooboy is it a humdinger of resonant ambivalence and the corrupting power of revenge and also this bad cop is kinda not as bad now, huh, so if the reverse-engineered vehicle for that climax is a tad convenient and improbable, well, whaddya gonna do?

In isolation, none of these missteps would acutely confound or diminish Three Billboards; collectively, they bleed the film’s reserves of captivation and believability dry. None of which would matter quite so much were Three Billboards not so aggressively convinced of its own insight, its own profundity, its own perspicacity as to what ills beset the human condition in America. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—as it knows, as it reminds you, as its writer-director implores you not to forget—is important. That’s why it talks about the rape and the murder and the domestic abuse and the persons-of-color torturing and the molestation by priest and the playful/not-playful varieties of c-word deployment and the rest. It is squarely at the center of all that matters; at least, it wants you to think so. But the location of the actual center depends on the parameters you first set. With parameters so haphazard and scattershot, is it any wonder that Three Billboards’ center cannot hold?

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