Why ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ fails audience, main characters

Merrick Morton / Fox Searchlight/Courtesy
Frances McDormand as "Mildred Hayes" in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. Photo by Merrick Morton, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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At first glance, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” seems like a film reflective of our time: It provokes racial discourse and aims to present a compelling female lead, while presenting the politics and psychology of middle America.

The problem is that writer-director Martin McDonagh seems to fundamentally misunderstand how to successfully execute the first two missions, and thus fails to do either effectively.

Roughly a third of the film is thoughtful, beautiful and powerful. But then comes the plot twist:

“Three Billboards” isn’t about its central female character after all, but rather the white men who fail to help her. Suddenly, the film is no longer about justice for those impacted by sexual violence — it’s about redeeming characters who are at best terrible and at worst actively harmful.

Frances McDormand’s Mildred seems like a promising character at the start of “Three Billboards.” She’s justice-driven, headstrong, abrasive and a product of the environment she lives in; she becomes a walking embodiment of the moral gray area. She’s not exactly likeable, and she shouldn’t have to be — women are expected to be polite and neat and categorically clear, but Mildred refuses to be any of those things.

Her anti-heroism works well until her character is sidelined, shoved into a representational pigeonhole that subverts any kind of progressivism that first made her shine. Halfway through the film, Mildred fades into the background in favor of a much more simplistic and much less fascinating character: Sam Rockwell’s Dixon. (This calls to mind an important question: Why does McDonagh have to make such an effort to write “strong” women characters? The answer is probably more of his same desire to “save” women from historical underrepresentation. He should take a cue from Shonda Rhimes.)

“Three Billboards” starts as a revenge tale spearheaded by Mildred, driven to expose the systematic erasure of sexual violence against women. But, by the film’s end, it’s clear that McDonagh is much more interested in the character arcs of men — specifically, one who is both racist and sexist.

McDonagh, in all of his nobility, is a crusader — claiming long-awaited justice for the tragically misunderstood male bigot.

But there’s nothing tragically misunderstood about Sam Rockwell’s Dixon. He’s a racist, and nobody cares. The creators of “Three Billboards” and those who sing its praises care much more about Dixon’s apparent redemption — a redemption he accomplishes through absolutely no genuinely courageous effort of his own — and in a way that feels as if it’s only out of resignation.

McDonagh has argued that Dixon’s character arc has nothing to do with redemption at all and that the controversies surrounding the film’s lack of accountability are misplaced. Even if you believe that Dixon is not in any sense forgiven by the end of “Three Billboards,” you can’t help but feel as if Rockwell’s Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations feel redemptive in their own right.

Dixon’s racism has courted tremendous controversy, and it may cost the film major awards. It begs the question: Why did McDonagh choose to establish Dixon as a violent racist in the first place, if he had absolutely zero intentions of engaging with race-related conversation?

Racism is employed merely as a character device to show us that Dixon is a bad person. But this objective was misguided, and the film should have stepped up to embrace any additional thematic layers it introduces when it creates a racist character. Instead, it sweeps these layers under the rug, as if they’re too complex to fit within the movie’s scope.

No one’s saying Oscar-winners shouldn’t be challenging — they should. But they should be challenging insofar as they confront the status quo, rather than remaining entrenched in outdated narratives and perpetuating erasure of Black experiences.

The film doesn’t seem aware of its own hypocrisy, which is that it seeks more justice for its white characters — from a white girl, to a white woman, to a bigoted white man — than it does for its Black characters, who are tropified, invisible or altogether erased. To be clear, the film is right to seek justice for a victim of sexual violence, but it should not neglect the other forms of violence that it invokes in the process. To add insult to injury, the film’s narrative of justice for Mildred’s daughter is ultimately reduced to Dixon’s arc; it’s merely a step in his character’s so-called “development.”

“Redemption” for Rockwell’s character comes only after he’s disturbed by hearing a man’s story of violating a young white woman; his ambiguously referenced violence against Black people doesn’t disturb him, the town or the movie nearly as much.

Part of the problem with “Three Billboards” is that it seems as hell-bent on provocation as children do when they learn their first swear words. In both cases, the provocateur doesn’t necessarily understand the language they’re using, only that its impact is frustration, anger or disturbance. For further evidence, one need only cite the film’s use of the N-word.

McDonagh has responded to the “backlash” (read: criticism) of his film by saying it was “deliberately messy and difficult.” It seems McDonagh thinks himself noble for attempting to engage in necessary discourse — but that’s just it. It’s a failed attempt because of a lack of nuance and thought. Fraught characters who lack self-awareness do not directly necessitate a film that is similarly un-self-aware — in fact, quite the opposite. A film riddled with characters who are careless or unaware of their misdeeds requires that the writer and the film itself more directly critique the characters’ faults; the film must do the work that its characters won’t.

There’s a distinct line between a film that introduces problematic discourse and a film that is problematic in itself.

“Three Billboards” introduces complex political conversations, but does little to deeply engage with them — and that’s equally evident from the film’s lack of confrontation with its characters’ racism and from the filmmaker’s trivializing responses to critiques of the film. To say that it is intentionally “messy” and “difficult” is to shirk responsibility for the film’s overall moral stance. The characters are allowed to be complicated and to lack self-awareness because the film should compensate with its own self-awareness — alas, McDonagh’s writing is guilty of the same shortcomings.

This exposes the real problem with “Three Billboards” — that it accomplishes absolutely nothing. The film is stripped of any statements related to racial tensions. Its bold introduction as a story about sexual violence and our response to it is completely voided by the end of the film. The only thing we are left with is two allegedly complex white men and their overrated arcs — that is, more of the same.

In other words, “Three Billboards” is pretty much useless. It masquerades as a compelling and progressive narrative, only to generate pages upon pages of discourse about what’s not there. “Three Billboards” was not prepared for the responsibility of being important, and it hasn’t actually earned any of the thoughtful discussion that surrounds it.

It’s too late to forget that “Three Billboards” ever happened. It’s too late to not pay attention to it, to write it off as the irresponsible mess that it is. But there’s still time to reward movies that have earned their praise, and their discourse. While a McDormand victory would be well-deserved, there’s no reason to pretend this film has anything else to offer.

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].Contact Sophie-Marie Prime at [email protected].