Three Billboards


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Inspiration can strike at any time. Take Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the latest film from Martin McDonagh, the British/Irish playwright turned filmmaker who won an Oscar for his short film Six Shooter (2004), scored a best screenplay nomination for his debut In Bruges (2008) and now finds himself an awards season frontrunner after Three Billboards recently scooped four Golden Globes. Following In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths (2012), the new movie — his third — is another pitch-black comedy-drama, albeit with a much more tragic backstory: it’s built around a grief-numbed mother who rents the titular billboards in order to publicly chastise the local police for failing to arrest anyone in connection with the brutal rape and murder of her teenage daughter seven months earlier.

The billboards themselves are a striking conceit. In a social media age of constant protest and outrage, their presence in the film feels archaic — an analogue marker of injustice and bureaucratic incompetence, one that can’t easily be scrolled through, blocked, ignored or forgotten. Which is actually how McDonagh came to write the film. Around a decade ago he was taking a bus trip through the southern United States when he saw similar billboards in a field by the side of the road. There were only two of them, and he couldn’t read what was on the second one, but as the bus whizzed past he saw just enough for the anger, the horror and the pain they expressed to stick in his head. This in turn prompted him to think about who’d put them up. Already intent on writing a film with a strong female lead, he decided that it must have been an angry and outraged mother. The moment he made that connection the character of Mildred Hayes popped out fully formed.[1]

Written for Frances McDormand — whom he met 20 years ago, after she came to see a play he’d done in New York (they agreed to work with each other there and then) — Mildred is a force of nature.[2] Full of raw, unapologetic anger, she’s no longer able to sugar-coat her feelings for the benefit of others, not even her teenage son (Lucas Hedges). Given McDormand’s casting there’s an obvious parallel to be drawn with Marge Gunderson, her heavily pregnant, no-nonsense police woman from Fargo (Dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 1996). 22 years on, Mildred could be the dystopian embodiment of future Marge, someone who — to paraphrase Howard Beale in Network (Dir. Sydney Lumet, 1976) — is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore.

But it feels too reductive to think of Mildred as Marge-gone-wrong or as the female equivalent of one of those staunch libertarian men raging at the world for real or perceived injustices. In iconic movies such as Dirty Harry (Dir. Don Siegel, 1971), The French Connection (Dir. William ­­­Friedkin, 1971), Taxi Driver (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1976), Mad Max (Dir. George Miller, 1979) and even American Beauty (Dir. Sam Mendes, 1999), male characters have long had free rein to right wrongs and recklessly play by their own rules when things don’t go their way. What’s more, audiences have been fully expected to cheer them on. With a few exceptions — Kill Bill Vol I & II (Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2003/2004) , forgotten Jodie Foster thriller The Brave One (Dir. Neil Jordan, 2007), outré South Korean epic Lady Vengeance (Dir. Park Chan-wook, 2005) — films about women railing against societal norms when life hits them hard have not only been rare, they’ve too often focused on fetishising and sexualising the crimes perpetrated against their alleged heroines, diminishing the cathartic effect that a revenge fantasy or drama ought to have (see Abel Ferrara’s 1981 exploitation thriller Ms. 45 for a particularly specious and lurid example).

As played by McDormand — decked out in overalls and bandana, minimal make-up, hair frequently tied up to reveal a time-saving undercut — Mildred may express the occasional alarming view about DNA registration and capital punishment, but as fanciful as the film sometimes gets, McDormand’s contained and controlled performance never lets us forget Mildred’s very real pain. And that pain is not just for her daughter’s murder, but for the casual violence and threats of violence she’s experienced — and continues to experience — on a daily basis. In this she’s a timely and somewhat prescient anti-heroine for the newly formed Time’s Up political movement that has emerged from the #MeToo campaign, that shone such a damning spotlight on sexual harassment in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations.

But the film isn’t just about gender politics, it’s about racial politics as well. Mildred’s nemesis, played by Sam Rockwell, is an IQ-challenged, alcoholic, racist cop who thinks it’s okay to torture and harass black people as long as he uses politically correct terminology to describe the abuse. (At one point he admonishes Mildred for using the N-word. “It’s ‘people-of-colour torturing business’,” he tells her, idiotically.) McDonagh set the film in the South specifically to have that connection, but it’s also this aspect of the film that has drawn the fiercest criticism. Some commentators have called McDonagh out for the incidental tokenism of the film’s black characters, played here by Clarke Peters, Daryl Britt-Gibson and Amanda Warren.[3] Rockwell’s dim-witted Officer Dixon, meanwhile, is full of bigotry and perpetrates some of the most heinous acts in the film (including punching a woman square in the face — an act that’s never referred to again). Yet he’s granted a redemptive storyline that feels a little too easily earned (something that McDonagh has himself admitted came from Rockwell’s innate charm and ability as an actor to humanise a very troubled soul[4]). This plot development drew particular ire on social media during the Golden Globes ceremony, especially when the film triumphed over Get Out (Dir. Jordan Peel, 2017), which had already been controversially relegated to the comedy category, despite the two films occupying a similarly uncomfortable space between drama, comedy and social horror.[5] 

But what’s not in doubt is the relevance of Mildred Hayes and brilliance of McDormand’s performance. Mildred’s determination to keep her daughter’s murder in the public eye no matter how uncomfortable it makes everyone feel functions as a symbolic roar at a wider world in which toxic masculinity has been tolerated for too long. 

Alistair Harkness
The Scotsman film critic
January 2018



[1] Martin McDonagh, interview by Alistair Harkness, 15 October 2017

[2] ibid

[3] April Wolfe, ‘Frances McDormand rules but Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards proves too forgiving’, The Village Voice, 8 November 2017: https://www.villagevoice.com/2... ; Marc Bernardin, ‘Despite its awards, Three Billboards is a shallow look at race in rural America’, The Guardian, 9 January 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/fi... ; Nate Jones, ‘Your guide to the Three Billboards backlash’, Vulture, 10 January 2018: http://www.vulture.com/2018/01... 

[4] Alistair Harkness, ‘Rockwell’s redneck shines a light on abuse of power,’ The Scotsman, 6 January, 2017: https://www.scotsman.com/lifes...

[5] Ash Percival, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri's Golden Globes Win Sparks Backlash’, Huffington Post, 8 January 2018: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.u...


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