TW: Rape, racial violence, police brutality
In Martin McDonagh’s 2012 film Seven Psychopaths, “Marty”, a screenwriter and a thinly veiled self-portrait, discusses his latest script with his friend Hans. Hans is not impressed. “Your women characters are awful,” he says, “None of them have anything to say for themselves. And most of them get either shot or stabbed to death within five minutes.” It would seem at first glance that in his latest, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh has taken on his own criticism and then some.
The film follows Mildred (Frances McDormand), a mother whose daughter has been recently raped and murdered in their small town. Mildred has plenty to say for herself, and isn’t afraid to say it in six-foot high letters on the film’s eponymous billboards outside town. She rents advertising space on three neglected billboards and displays the slogans – “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, “How come, Chief Willoughby?” These words are Mildred’s opening shots at the police department of Ebbing, particularly Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby and Sam Rockwell’s criminally incompetent Officer Dixon, who come to be the main antagonists as she demands closure for the loss of her daughter. A powerful, complex female character runs the show in Three Billboards, and as such the film has been heralded widely as a feminist triumph. This is, however, only true of Mildred’s story arc, which cannot be separated from that which surrounds it: a shamefully cack-handed depiction of violence against women and ethnic minorities.
The second half of Three Billboards makes it clear that this story has two main protagonists, not one. The other is Rockwell’s police officer. It is made clear that Dixon is a racist and a violent one, who has previously been in trouble with the force for beating up Black people. This we learn when Mildred taunts him about how the “nigger-torturing business” is going, and he responds by correcting her on her language, rather than denying the accusation. McDonagh’s tone is decidedly tongue in cheek and it is very uncomfortable. As the film advances and Dixon and Mildred become more and more intertwined, and as Dixon is dismissed from his job and revealed to be lonely, we are asked to empathise with him while he ‘learns’ that maybe brutal, racist violence doesn’t make him very happy. Officer Dixon isn’t the only character that rankles. We’re told that Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie, another one-time policeman, is a serial abuser. And we see the evidence: Charlie enters Mildred’s house, upends her table and puts his hands around her throat. This attack is treated breezily – his new 19-year-old girlfriend Penelope wanders past smiling, asking unfazed if she can use the bathroom. Both domestic violence and violence against Black people are treated with flippancy throughout.
McDonagh chooses to depict the morally inexcusable behaviour of his characters alongside softening aspects of their personality. When we learn that Dixon’s father has died, that he has a poor relationship with his mother, that he is lonely, we are being asked to feel for Rockwell’s policeman. The scene in which Dixon reads a letter of encouragement from Chief Willoughby, complete with emotionally wrought close-ups and swelling music, is a particularly good example of McDonagh’s manipulating of the audience’s feelings towards him. There is a ‘realism’ argument that gets made in favour of this kind of filmmaking. Take this, for instance, from Matt Singer at Screen Crush:
“A lesser movie would make the cops one-dimensional villains and Mildred a saintly hero. Three Billboards’ main characters are complex, rich, and real… [Dixon] is given layers of motivation that help us understand why he behaves the way he does.”
Singer’s point here is that McDonagh is representing life the way it really is: racist policemen do have feelings, wife-beaters also love their daughters, and so on. But there is a difference between showing something on screen and condoning it. “It’s a hard world for women, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say,” explains the screenwriter character in Seven Psychopaths. It is a hard world for women, and for ethnic minorities in America, but McDonagh has made the choice not only to say that, but to say that the perpetrators of violence against these people need sympathy too, and to say the second statement louder.
It is not harmless for McDonagh to equate the redemption of a grieving mother with the redemption of a policeman who takes pleasure in beating up Black people, or to ask his audience to laugh at a scene in which a man has hands around his ex-wife’s throat. Three Billboards goes beyond just giving bad characters complicating traits to round them out as people by peddling a dated acceptance of white men and their crimes, forgiving them but nobody else. You can beat your wife, throw people out of windows, commit racially motivated assault and still be a sympathetic character, as long as you are white. There’s nothing brave or daring about a film that sympathises with a white racist policeman. Nor is it these people that need defending and humanising on screen.
All this is made more troubling by that fact that, in other ways, Three Billboards is an enjoyable film, an exciting one even. The central image of the three billboards themselves is visually striking, and McDormand’s raging Mildred is a fantastic performance: a powerful depiction of grief so raw as to be beyond control. Her desperate efforts to get justice for her daughter’s murder are juxtaposed with tender and domestic scenes in which she tries to keep things going for her son at the breakfast table. It’s also narratively satisfying that justice eludes her. Perpetrators of crimes like these are often never caught. As a depiction of rape this is a far cry from the pseudo-torture porn we often see in the cinema: the film doesn’t ask ‘why’ she was raped, nor is there any suggestion that a reason should be looked for. I laughed and cried whilst watching the early parts. Three Billboards feels like a squandered opportunity rather than simply a bad film. Neither Mildred as a character, nor the sensitively treated aspects of the rape narrative, are enough to excuse the rest.