I have a few questions after seeing Martin McDonagh’s latest feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I guess the first one is on me because, for some reason, I thought this was a true story right up until I actually saw it. I have no idea why, but if anyone else thought it was based on a true story, please let me know so we can all not feel so confused together.
Aside from that, I have a lot of other questions.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri follows Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) in her attempts to find her daughters murderer. Seven months after her daughter Angela is brutally raped, killed and set on fire, the Ebbing police department have still not caught the killer. In order to keep the case in the public eye (and also encourage the cops to do their jobs), Mildred rents three billboards just outside the town to ask the question; why has no-one been arrested for this crime? Woody Harrelson plays cancer-cop (he has cancer, he doesn’t arrest it) Chief Willoughby, who seems like a stand up guy apart from the fact he defends co-cop Dickson (Sam Rockwell) who is renowned for torturing black people in custody. Which seems like it should matter more, but the Three Billboards forgets this pretty quickly as Chief Willoughby is portrayed as someone doing their best, and then someone quickly committing suicide after having sex with his wife, a few metres from their children playing by the river (???).
The town blames Mildred’s billboards for Chief Willoughby’s death, even though his multiple suicide notes explicitly state that he killed himself before his condition deteriorated, and things get a bit weird. There’s a weird redemptive arc for Officer Dickson, whose racism, homophobia and bigotry seem to be off-set by the fact that he saves Angela Hayes’ files from the police station. I don’t want to go too into here, because there are a LOT of other people who are more qualified, and who have articulated better than I ever could (Ira Madison’s article at The Daily Beast is the best op-ed I’ve read on it), but trust me when I say that it’s a bizarre bait-and-switch as far as I’m concerned.
Though McDormand is phenomenal throughout, McDonagh spends at least half the film exploring Dickson’s inner turmoil and his home life, time which (in my humble opinion) would have been far better spent exploring Mildred’s grief, mental state and acceptance of her daughters death. I have a lot of of nit-picky questions about this film, about character intentions and just general confusion, so I’ve decided to break it down below. Lets go!
Why is Chief Willoughby’s wife half his age?
Okay, so this may not be the most pressing issue but it is one that I took umbrage with. There’s a lot of focus on the fact that Mildred’s ex-husband is dating a much younger woman (it’s implied that she is barely out of her teens). So it’s a bit odd when we see Chief Willoughby’s wife and no-one makes any kind of mention as to the fact that she is 21 years his junior. Maybe not the biggest issue with this film but it annoyed me so it’s on the list.
Why so many offensive slurs?
I know that a lot of white people (and I say this as a white person) think it’s big and clever to use offensive language to point out how offensive it is, and how it proves people are racist if they say it. Well, guess what – you saying it, even trying to prove a point, is also racist. I was really onboard with Three Billboards until the scene where Mildred and Dickson are talking about Dickson’s torturing of black folks, and there’s a back and forth where the N word is liberally applied. Perhaps there was a point behind it all, but I fail to see it.
The film also employs offensive slurs against the LGBTQ community, the kind which many of us (I am sure) last heard in the playground at school whilst having things thrown at us. Considering McDonough didn’t actually cast any LGBTQ actors, or write any LGBTQ characters into the film – what possible justification is there to use these terms?
Why are the only black characters there to support white characters in their journey?
Following on from my previous point… the only characters of colour in Three Billboards are in the film solely because they are black. They have no other personality traits, narrative arcs or reason for being other than their blackness. Denise, Mildred’s friend, is arrested on possession of marijuana (original) to prove that the police force are prejudiced and will do anything to stop Mildred. Willoughby’s replacement, Abercrombie, is a black man, seemingly only to rile up Dickson and the other white cops in the precinct.
When was this film set?
Following on my THAT – when on earth was this film set? This question led myself and three friends to have an incredibly detailed debate as to when it was actually set (something I feel you should NOT have to do – establishing the time period is a VERY basic requirement of cinema). We concluded that, with the use of smartphones and Dickson’s reference to googling, it must be set within the last five years. Which begs the question: why is everyone so cool with bigoted language and attitudes in the town? Mildred seems to be a very progressive woman (at least, we assume from the pedo-priest conversation), so why is she using slurs too? Adding to this the constant jokes aimed at Peter Dinklage’s character, the film felt incredibly dated….
Unless this is just how rural America is? I could be completely mistaken. Do let me know if this is the case, and if you live in an area like Ebbing, you should also let me know so I can try and start a Go Fund Me to get you out of there.
What’s the deal with Mildred’s son?
This is kind of self explanatory, but what is his deal? One minute he’s spouting some crap about how the domestic violence charges against his Dad were only Mildred’s word against his, the next minute he is holding a knife to his father’s throat as if this had all happened before.
One minute he hates Mildred, the next minute he supports her. It’s all a bit weird, and he seems to change depending on what the narrative needs him to do rather than any kind of character development.
Why does Mildred tell her daughter she wishes she was raped?
Does being on fire lead to a complete personality transplant?
The real lesson I took from Three Billboards is that we need to take all racist, bigoted, homophobic police officers in rural America and put them in a burning building but ensure that they survive the ordeal. Apparently, this leads to a complete personality overhaul and they become nice decent people almost instantly.
Is this film going to win best film at the Oscars?