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‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ Fails to Live Up to Its Incisive Premise

Frances McDormand heads a universally strong cast in an otherwise familiar—and ultimately unearned—Martin McDonagh redemption story

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Ringer illustration

When we first see the three billboards that haunt a lonely road on the outskirts of Ebbing, Missouri, they’re a complete mess. Against the natural beauty of a heavy fog and the road’s surroundings—spacious greens, rolling Missouri hills—stand these huge, dilapidated, painfully blank canvasses. No one’s rented the billboards out since the mid-’80s. There’d be no point: They line a highway no one really uses. But one day, a woman named Mildred Hayes gets an idea. She’s got a message she’d like the town of Ebbing to see. So she rents the ad space on the billboards and, in stark black ink offset by backgrounds reddened with rage, makes her case:




The signs go up on Easter Sunday. Mildred rents the billboards for a year.

The natural fog in Martin McDonagh’s new movie, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, eventually lifts. But the moral complication portended by that fog remains for the rest of the movie. McDonagh's Three Billboards, which stars Frances McDormand, is the story of a woman looking for answers. “Raped While Dying” refers to her daughter, Angela, who was raped and killed seven months before. It’s a dire, complicated case. The DNA at the scene doesn’t match anyone who’s ever been arrested; there were no eyewitnesses. And there are no other leads. The man responsible for handling the case, Chief Willoughby, played by a stout Woody Harrelson, is as popular as he is (in Mildred’s estimation) ineffective. Hence the billboards. Willoughby happens to be dying of pancreatic cancer, and he’s a little shocked that everyone, including Mildred, already knows. “And you still put up those billboards?” he asks. “Well,” says Mildred, “they wouldn’t be as effective after you croak.”

McDonagh, the playwright, screenwriter, and director best known for his films Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges, has a knack for lines like this: humorous juts of nastiness amid contentious, but somehow still sympathetic, back-and-forths. And he has a penchant for old-fashioned redemption stories. No one in Three Billboards is entirely good or bad; every redemptive arc is paired with the damning inner shades of a so-called good guy. And actors the likes of McDormand, Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell—who plays a bigoted policeman, Officer Dixon—get to chew their way through scene after mouthy, blackly comic scene, hitting emotional and psychological pivots with the schematic neatness of a flow chart. That part—the neatness—is annoying. But for a while, the movie works.

That’s thanks, in part, to the premise, a rich, disturbing, conflict-prone set of events that puts into motion a potentially rich, just as disturbing discussion about right and wrong. Is Mildred right? Certainly she’s right to be angry. And angry she is: She’s a force of nature, and all the more entertaining for it. Casting McDormand, a 60-year-old whirlwind of a screen presence, indicates as much. Mildred, who wears her stern looks, blue coveralls, and tightly wound bandana like a suit of armor, is as tough as she looks. Given what we gradually learn of her daughter’s murder, it’s a wonder she’s keeping it together at all, let alone causing a ruckus. The billboards are an ingenious idea—they of course get her all manner of attention, in the form of ridicule from the police and coverage on the local news—but they’re also a sacrifice. She works at the local gift shop; she has to sell her ex-husband’s tractor to pay for the first month and deposit on the ads. To other people, she’s no longer Mildred. Per the way she’s greeted around town, she has fully become “Angela Hayes’s mother.” Her daughter’s rape and murder have become her story. Justice hasn’t—yet.

Willoughby, a good-humored authority figure if ever there was one, thinks of the Angela Hayes murder as the kind of case that only gets solved when some idiot with a big mouth brags about it in a bar. Not through investigation, in other words, but through luck. That’s of course not the kind of thing a mother wants to hear. The controversial billboards are above all meant to get Willoughby off his ass. They’re contentious. “The town knows what kind of man Willoughby is,” says the priest. But what kind of woman is Mildred Hayes? The kind of woman to say “Get the fuck out of my kitchen” to a well-meaning priest, for one. The kind of woman to drive a dental drill through the finger of an opinionated dentist, who proclaims his loyalty to Willoughby just as he’s about to lean in and knock out one of Mildred’s teeth. She may be the hero here, but she’s also a vigilante in her own right, an imperfect heroine motored by her own sense of moral justification.

It’s a meaty, adventurous role, calculated to risk polarizing us even as we all sympathize with her pain. Some of Mildred’s views are controversial. She hates religion—she hates hypocrisy. Above all, she hates cops. She has her reasons. Her ex-husband (played by John Hawkes) was a cop, and he beat her. And more broadly, the varied public attitudes toward police are precisely what’s at stake in McDonagh’s movie. Three Billboards seems to be aware of the current debates on policing swirling through the news. It knowingly feeds off a conversation some of us might even be having as we walk into the theater. For the town’s handful of black residents, for example, distrusting the police is more or less a plain given—“Fuck the police” is pretty much the only idea McDonagh gives them to express (with one humorously obvious exception).

A cop like Rockwell’s Officer Dixon, who still lives with his mother, and whose anger surpasses his intelligence or sympathy, feels like a caricature of the kind of bad cop we can all—across the spectrum—agree is bad. He’s a complete idiot, for one thing: His mom, the only uncomplicatedly racist person in the movie, is his jaded consigliere. Dixon’s reputation, and the fact he once wrongly tortured a black man, precedes him. Willoughby, on the other hand, is a good guy in a tough position. None of the other cops have a personality or opinion. If, like Dixon, they’re prejudiced, they’re only outwardly and obviously so. If you’re looking for a greater sense of the kind of police department that’d let Dixon get away with torture, or with throwing another man out of a window literally across the street from the police station, that’s missing here. A sense of context for the ways these people behave, and the relationships and moral unions that give rise to their behavior, is similarly missing. The movie feels like it’s playing out in a vacuum.

What the movie has in spades: good punchlines, clever digs, McDormand sass, and lots and lots of talk. It’s in many ways an entertaining movie: not quite a mystery, but riveting in the way the characters keep revealing their true natures to us. On the other hand, the screenplay leaves little to the imagination. Everything the characters think or feel, they say—if not always verbally, then via knowing, long glances. It’s an imitation of ambiguity. Even a silent car ride between Hayes and her son, when he first sees the billboards, communicates an obvious feeling. It’s as if, for McDonagh, the schematic pivots of his script won’t work at all unless he overcommunicates every psychological turn.

It helps to have a great cast. The performances are strong throughout: McDormand, in particular, seems primed for her second Academy Award. Mildred never surprises us more than in her capacity for sympathy. For all the hardness about her—her son lovingly calls her an “old cunt” for a reason, I guess—there’s a pained interior. McDormand is better at bringing it out than the movie is at giving us a reason to care. A somber monologue to a deer, late in the movie, in the midst of what feels like a complete dead end in the investigation, seems ready-made to be her Oscar reel—just as a similar moment, featuring an encounter with a stag in the countryside, was Helen Mirren’s Oscar reel for The Queen. Mirren won; McDormand likely will, too. Rockwell’s Officer Dixon, meanwhile, is a dangerous man—an outright criminal, really—who’s defanged by his goofy personality. The movie makes him dumber and more aloof than it has to; it can’t seem to imagine that a vigilante with a badge might be full of intention. He’s a cop who gets away with torture and assault: How dumb can he be? But nevermind: Get your Oscar.

McDonagh’s sense of morality readily lends itself to entertaining plot turns and impressive acting. He leans into the kinds of vicious, manipulative contradictions that make melodramas so powerful. But in this case, his predilections only lead us down a rabbit hole of dumb ideas, symbolic ironies that really only make sense to people with $80 screenplay software on their MacBooks. Or is this the kind of advice you get when you stick to the free trial? Keep a lookout for every time a cop fucks up in Three Billboards. Chances are there’s a black person hovering somewhere in the background, playing silent witness, to make a point of that injustice. To whom? I’m guessing not to those black people: They’re merely props. What about when an aggressive police interrogation is cut short because the cancer-ridden Willoughby coughs blood right into Mildred’s face, a stark—you could say aggressively simplistic—reminder that, even if he’s wrong, he’s merely human?

The worst moment in the movie is a flashback to Mildred’s argumentative last words to her daughter. They’re arguing over Angela borrowing Mildred’s car. Mildred tells Angela to walk. “I hope I get raped on the way,” shouts Angela. “Well, I hope you get raped on the way, too!” The line gets the response it’s going for: ouch. The malignant irony of this being a mother’s final words to a daughter who winds up getting raped and killed couldn’t be more clear.

What’s obscure, in these contradictions, is McDonagh’s endgame. Is there someone out there who believes cops can’t die of cancer or have a sense of humor? Because Three Billboards is the kind of movie to want to milk that seeming contradiction in terms—cop on the one hand, human on the other—for more than it’s worth. The problem with most redemption narratives, besides the fact their emotional range seems calculated to win awards, is that they bask in the seeming paradoxes of their premise: When you’re literally the worst, it’s counterintuitive for us to see you in any other light. So you give a torturer disguised as a cop a heart of bronze, if not quite gold, and on the flip side, you give a grieving mother an anarchic streak. Rather than give his characters ideas that complicate our sense of who they are—ideas about justice, punishment, fairness, even redemption—McDonagh keeps riffing on the same preordained arcs. It’s entertaining in the moment, but by the end, the movie verges on false equivalencies I can’t really forgive. As one character spirals downward, another ascends. They meet somewhere in a vague, indeterminate, and sort of nonsensical middle. It feels like ambiguity, but rather than reveal moral truth, it merely exemplifies McDonagh’s clever engineering.

This all distracts from the persuasive power of the billboards themselves, which, with their black-inked accusations aglow with fury, are the best thing in the movie. Truly, as a feat of advertisement, Mildred is onto something. The language—AND STILL NO ARRESTS?—is all the more shocking for its simplicity. The stark red of the background bounces off of every face that passes them by, night or day, as if merely by seeing them, you become implicated in the Ebbing police department’s ongoing inaction. As an opportunity for McDonagh to lend his movie moral weight through images, and not solely through the AP English–level routine morality of his script, they’re a fabulous anchor. I don’t actually know where those billboards are relative to everything else in Ebbing. But our sense of the town is inseparable from them. If only they were separable from the rest of the movie.