I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is playwright turned IN BRUGES/SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS director Martin McDonagh’s exploration of a grieving mother at war with the local PD. Her teenage daughter was raped and killed seven months ago, and she’s mad that they haven’t made any arrests, so she rents three billboards that bluntly explain the situation and blame the police chief by name.

I probly don’t need to tell you that this creates some tension in town. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, SEVEN POUNDS, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, TRIPLE 9, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, 2012) tries to reason with her politely about taking it down. His deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES), who is locally infamous for an unexplained incident involving the torture of a black man, is not as cool-headed about it, and threatens poor Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones, GET OUT) at the billboard company. The woman’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA) is traumatized and hurt by the graphic details of the murder he had previously avoided knowing. Her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes, STEEL), a domestic abuser and a cop, is embarrassed by it and doesn’t think it helps anything.

But she stubbornly persists. More than anything the movie is a tribute to the greatness of Frances McDormand (DARKMAN), who plays this character, Mildred Hayes. Her mourning status gives her license for a BAD SANTA type campaign of assholery, cursing, assaulting and not giving a fuck all over town. She’s a tough lady who even though she runs a gift shop for a living wears coveralls, has a macho posture and part of her hair shaved. She’s on the warpath – she takes “burn it all down” literally, by the way – but she has a big heart. When, in the middle of a confrontation, the chief suddenly coughs blood on her face, she instantly drops the fight and comforts him, even calling him “baby” in a motherly sort of way.

McDormand could’ve turned this into a tear and snot drenched Oscar reel if she’d wanted to, but apparently she resisted that for this character, choosing instead a more interesting repressed grief covered with shit-stirring wrath.

And it’s another great role for Harrelson, whose character has to face this case, this controversy and a terminal disease simultaneously. Since the chief is the one she singles out on the billboard you expect him to be an antagonist, but he’s the most understanding about the whole situation. He’s more hurt than anything. And though he wants her to take them down he also tries to stop Dixon from harassing her, and is lenient about the things she does, which sometimes constitute serious crimes. And he has a bond with her that goes beyond death.

It leans harder on the tragedy than on the comedy, but there are some big laughs, and they come out of nowhere sometimes. The feeling of inappropriateness only makes them stronger. We feel the catharsis of Mildred’s rampage, but also the weight of her guilt for its unintended consequences, and for her equally messy parenting choices. It’s an unsettling and emotionally harrowing experience, mostly in the ways intended, but I think also in others.

McDonagh has a gift for characters who do horrible things but are still funny and kind of charming, a little sad, a little sympathetic. People, and life, are complicated. It’s both troubling and novel to hear that Charlie was abusive, and then see him put his hands on Mildred’s neck, but also have him be kind of right in some of their arguments, and have moments where he seems okay, like he’s genuinely trying for them to get along as divorced parents. He does end things on an asshole note, which is a relief. Anything else would feel like a lie, because I can’t not worry for his young girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving, MONSTER TRUCKS). We only see him being nice to her, but I don’t trust it.

Chief Willoughby is one of the most likable characters, but how much of a good guy is he really? This is a movie that delights in making you squirm by using the N, C, F and R words and repeatedly calling Peter Dinklage a “midget,” yet for me the most uncomfortable line was the first, slur-free part of the chief saying, “You got rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have three cops left and all of them would hate the fags.” It feels like a throwaway joke, and Harrelson makes it funny, but man, it cuts deep. We’re trying to get behind this chief of police, but he may really believe it’s not worth trying to remove bigots from the police because they would lose too many guys. Not to mention he’s downplaying what Dixon apparently did as only vaguely racist.

(Speaking of “vaguely racist,” Mildred, I know you’re only using the n-word to tauntingly implicate Dixon as a bigot, but let’s not be using that loophole.)

This is my one issue with a very interesting movie. Starting with Mildred saying “It seems to me the police department is too busy torturin’ black folks to solve actual crime,” it takes on systemic racism in policing as one of its main themes. Therefore, (SPOILER) I think it’s being much too easy on Dixon when he  goes out of his way to try to solve the case and bring Mildred some closure, thereby proving his worth as a cop and giving him some sense of redemption. It works as a story, as a character evolution, but not as subtext, as symbolism. I don’t think two white people are able to decide this matter is settled. You tried to help me catch a killer, so I absolve you of your racism. It doesn’t work that way.

McDonagh’s work proves that it’s easier to laugh about hitmen taking life lightly than police officers. I only know hitmen from movies, and I don’t have high hopes for them. Police officers I see everyday, and society counts on them. When they’re assholes it’s bad for everyone.

I do like that all of the white people in the movie, especially the heroine, are wackos getting into crazy fights all the time, while the three black characters are the normal people having to witness all this shit. There’s a great moment when (SPOILER) Dixon finishes the outrageous assault of an innocent citizen, and walks right past a man watching the whole thing from the sidewalk, and you see that it’s Clarke Peters (RED HOOK SUMMER, JOHN WICK), and that he has a badge on his hip, and then it turns out he’s the brand new interim police chief. You get to watch these fuckos on the force exhibit at least a tiny bit of shame and self awareness about their shittiness now that there’s finally an authority figure who will draw a line. We can hope he’s able to enforce a strikingly different “vaguely racist leanings” policy than the last guy.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, December 11th, 2017 at 11:46 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”

  1. Good review, Vern! I can’t help but think that Martin McDonagh’s English upbringing doesn’t quite translate in this case. He knows that racist policing is a hot-button issue, and he’s intentionally using it to make us uncomfortable and to evoke conflicted feelings and assumptions… but I don’t think, as an outsider, he quite understands the level of sensitivity it provokes in Americans. He’s just using the issue as an example of his larger point (about how anger corrodes the soul) but I don’t think a lot of us are really in a good place to watch a movie about police racism which isn’t really interested in the issue of police racism. I’m not sure, but I suspect it might be similar to making a movie in a strongly Catholic country where a significant subplot of the movie is about a main character getting an abortion, but mostly just as a way to show us things about the character. You’re probably not going to be able to plead that you were trying to explore themes instead of political issues, because it’s just too emotional for some people to see past. Hopefully in the future we do better as a society and we’ll be able to look back a little more dispassionately at what McDonagh was really trying to get at, but I can’t fault anyone for not being able to do that right now.

  2. McDonagh’s previous movies made me a fan for life, but I won’t get fooled again, after expecting hilarious comedies the last two times around, only to get unexpectedly drowned in some super depressing drama (with admittedly a bunch of great laughs). No sir, not this time. When I watch it, I will be all prepared for some incredibly sad and dark shit!

  3. BTW, as long as the recent commentary thing doesn’t work, I recommend to subscribe to the comments here as rss feed, if you are into that.

  4. I don’t think Mildred absolved Dixon of his racism or general hatred at all, nor do I think did McDonaugh intend for him to be absolved. What this did do was repeatedly hammer home the point how love/compassion is the great unifying force. How things will always be better when people help others, I mean that was presented from the start with Mildred and the cockroach. Maybe Dixon can change, to be fair he went through a truly traumatic injury, but think about that last scene. He’s still a violent madman, he’s just trying to channel it ‘positively’, but still in a fundamentally wrong way.

  5. How do you subscribe to the RSS thing?

  6. It says below the review and before the comment section.

  7. With one of the many, many ways that systemic racism makes its presence known being the habit of media and law enforcement to lavish one attractive white girl victim with attention while completely ignoring the daily atrocities minority communities face, this seems like an exceedingly tone deaf choice for a plot line about police malfeasance. I’m not saying it’s not a tragedy whenever anybody gets murdered, but attractive white girls get TV movies, true crime books, constant media buzz, and pressure from the populace and government to get the case solved. None of that happens for people of color, and it seems very strange to focus on the one kind of victim we know for a fact law enforcement DOES care about (when they’re murdered anyway—not so much when they’re just raped). I’ll chalk it up to Mr. S’s “Guy from 99.9% white country just doesn’t get it” theory and still check it out because IN BRUGES was great, even if SEVEN PSYCHPATHS was ridiculously unmemorable for a movie with that cast.

  8. If you have an RSS reader, normally it’s enough if you put Outlawvern.com in your feed. Then it will ask you which one you wanna subscribe to (blog posts or comments) and then just pick comments.
    If it doesn’t ask you, try to use

    http://outlawvern.com/comments/feed/

  9. Sorry Vern, I liked this one more than Get Out (which I thought was great as well) – it’s funnier than most straight comedies but still emotionally hit me like a ton of bricks. McDormand and Harrelson give career-best performances, the dialogue is snappy without being overly showy, the plot is like the best Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes (or Holes) with intricate setups and payoffs, with every character’s choices and decisions affecting the rest of the movie like a chain reaction. This is probably my favorite film this year (thought I haven’t seen many of the Oscar nominees)

    Re: the racism/thinkpieces. I think McDonagh’s in a bit of a bind. Obviously if he didn’t include police racism/brutality in a story heavily featuring cops, everybody would be crying about the lack thereof. (I’ve heard people complain about LET’S BE COPS not addressing institutional racism, for crying out loud.) So he includes it and makes the main racist cop a buffoonish villain (*SPOILER* until the end). He makes the three black characters practically saints. (I wouldn’t be surprised to find a thinkpiece about them being magic negroes and lacking agency, etc…) I kinda don’t know what people want him to do except change the entire focus of his film and drop the story he’s actually trying to tell.

    I don’t want to speak for Vern but I can see people being upset that a hot button issue is used as essentially character development – imagine if they made this movie today and it’s the exact same except Rockwell’s character was a gross sexual harrasser/rapist instead of a cop who tortured a black man- would anyone be interested in seeing him redeemed? Is he even redeemed at the end? The movie’s “happy” ending reminded me alot of the “happy” ending of The Hateful Eight with Rockwell in the Walton Goggins role – both are buffoonish racists who put aside differences with his enemy to go exact some punishment on a third party who probably deserves it. I wonder why so many people are giving McDonagh a hard time about this when we gave Tarantino a pass for giving his racist characters redemption.

  10. neal2zod, is this you?

    Confessions of an Oscar Voter: Why I Loved ‘Three Billboards’ and Don’t Get ‘Get Out’

    The Academy’s voting body is largely white, male, and over 65. With that in mind, we asked an anonymous Academy Awards voter for their honest thoughts on this year’s nominees.

    I’m not sure I understand what it is about these two films that leads people to compare them.

  11. I don’t think people ARE giving Tarantino a pass. I saw a wave of people taking the Uma Thurman article as their opportunity to say “I never liked Tarantino’s movies and this proves that I was right!” Which is never gonna fly with me. (I don’t feel I understand HATEFUL EIGHT but also don’t have much respect for many of the simplistic “he hates women” type of interpretations I’ve seen>)

  12. I concur, I’ve seen a bunch of articles and comments proclaiming ‘See! I was right all along! I am the the most supreme all woke!’ Typical, ‘his movies are violent and I always KNEW he had violent fantasies about women and this proves it!’ then it goes to the even more outlandish ‘I bet he was TRYING to kill her!’ Tarintino is one of those ones people have been gunning for. I remember when JACKIE BROWN came out and failed to light the world on fire, everyone who hated PULP FICTION either because they thought it was over-rated or because of the violent content, went ‘SEE! Told you, guess we heard the last of him!’ Then he made his ‘come-back’ with KILL BILL and they grumbled again about how violent the movie was and movies should never ever have violent content involving women. So to them, this is the smoking gun they’ve been waiting for.

    Goes back to discussions yesterday where there’s this new-ish thing where it’s decided that ‘if one who is woke such as I does not like a movie it is because it is immoral and thus the filmmaker is an immoral person.’

    Examples: Zack Snyder makes movies one does not like thus he is an objectivist. meat-head jock who celebrates and perpetuates toxic masculinity.
    Tarintino makes movies one does not like thus he is a man who fantasies about and gets sexual gratification from demeaning and abusing women. Also he is a super racist probably.
    *pats self on back on their woke levels being off the charts and thus probably more woke than you*

  13. I think generally though those are people who I don’t like to talk to about film, because I don’t think they really like film as much as they like having opinions, and once I detect that I can opt out. I am speaking to myself as much as you when I say let’s try not to be too bothered by these types of things when it doesn’t really affect us. Judgmental people are always gonna exist and it does us no good – in fact it does us harm – to take it personally and worry about whether or not we’re being judged. What I’m trying to say is, don’t waste your mental energy on worrying about these “more woke than you” people you’re talking about. That is the way to the dark side, to quote Yaddle, a female Jedi Master whose voice was silenced. Try to be open-minded about what they’re saying, see if you can improve yourself with it and if you are confident in your intentions as a person you don’t have to be defensive about what they think. For example, I don’t have to be offended by some dude saying “were Tarantino movies ever really feminist anyway?” because I don’t really give a shit how he defines it, I know that Jackie Brown, Beatrix Kiddo and Zoe Bell are three great female characters who are glorious on screen and inspirational to me even though I’m a different gender. And I’m not gonna apologize for loving them.

    (Sidenote: at the danger of being accused of being too p.c. by the too p.c. police, I am a little uncomfortable with how much white people sarcastically use the black-originated term “woke.” I am not judging you for this and I know it is a common thing that isn’t usually meant to be derogatory toward black culture, but I think we as the whites should be mindful about that sort of shit [Yaddle also said that one].)

  14. Wait. “Woke” is a black-originated term? I thought it’s one of those stupid, ironic Millennial word creations (“We use another form of waking up in a grammatically completely incorrect way, hahahaha”), like “stan” (As in “I stan this artist” when you are a fan), “SJW” or L33t from back in the days. Now I kinda feel bad for get-off-my-lawning this term since I heard it the first time.

    (But hating “stan” is still okay, right? I mean, they took it from a song about a guy who kills himself and his pregnant girlfriend because his favourite star didn’t write him back immediately and use it in a way that completely disregards the message of it!)

  15. Yeah, I’m with you on “stan.” The song is a classic, though.

  16. Nothing against STAN, the song! I have a love/hate relationship with Eminem, but this song is definitely on my “love” list.

  17. Yaddle’s words are as true when she said them a long, long time ago as they are now.

    I agree with that and it is something I strive for. I used to use a comment blocker (disabled only here and on AV Club) but took it off when I decided to be a better Internet person and also get rid of my AdBlocker to support the mom n’ pop places like here. Well I think I should probably get the comment blocker back because I was way happier with it turned on and will have to turn it off on AVClub as well. Yes it is 100% my fault for even scrolling down that far and it is even more my for reading their shitty opinions and it is wrong of me to bring that here. A side effect of here and one other place being the ONLY places I post online. For that I am sorry for bringing that and what-more continuously bringing that here.

    I will also admit my ignorance in not knowing the origin of the term woke. I will strive to be better.

    Thank you!

  18. Renfield – Ha, I wish that was me. I think I was just comparing the two in response to a Vern tweet or comment on another review where he pointed out how many hot takes would occur (perhaps justifiably) if Three Billboards beat Get Out. I think people are also quick to compare them since Three Billboards is now known as “the racist movie, and if you don’t think it’s racist, then you’re racist”.

    Ironically I wrote that comment about “Nobody giving Tarantino shit” a few weeks before everybody started giving him shit/swearing to boycott everything associated with him ever. I think I meant it more in re: to the fact that I’ve heard zero complaints about Walton Goggins’ racist buffoon character in Eight having a similar “redemption” arc. (Now I think about it, both characters *SPOILERS FOR BOTH MOVIES* not only go through a similar arc, they’re also pretty backgrounded comic relief characters for the first half until the person you thought was going to be the main antagonist (Russell/Harrelson) suddenly dies.

    Re: woke, I think it is used so derisively and ironically now because of how frequently liberal white bloggers unironically used the word. Despite the fact that said white bloggers would be the first to accuse someone of cultural appropriation. The supposedly woke Devin Faraci ran the term into the ground, and I know we shouldn’t let a few bad apples taint an entire word, but until there’s a term that can convey what I’m trying to say better than “woke with quotes around it” (and the quotes are important), I might be guilty of continuing to say it and apologize in advance.

    Vern does have the right idea of not taking things too personally, and not being bothered by people who enjoy having their opinions known over enjoying film. It’s something I know I need to work on. But then again, the whole “Oh, YOU didn’t take offense at this movie that I’M offended by? I guess your PRIVILEGE is showing” attitude attacks the person specifically and not just the film, so it’s kinda hard not to take personally. And yes, I’ve seen people attacking Black Panther for not having enough gay characters, and I guess i’m a big ole homophobe for not noticing, so no, you really can’t win these days.

  19. Something of paramount importance has been overlooked here.

    Bolo might make you quiver by smirking and twitching his pecs. Yuri Boyka might be the most complete fighter in the world who makes triple flying roundhouse kicks seem completely practical. Tong Po might become a successful interior re-decorator in some unexplained knee-jerk reaction.

    Yet none of them could hope to best the most unassailable villain imaginable – the kind-of-hot female high school bully. Besting a giant mutant prison psycho is one thing, but a kind-of-hot female high school bully is untouchable. A male douchebag can be decked and taken down, but the female variation demands no less than an hour of movie time of planning, and an unholy alliance to execute an elaborate plan to shame her on prom night.

    *SPOILERS*

    Mildred Hayes is presented with just such a Gordian knot. Someone in a group of high school kids throws some milk or something at her windscreen as she’s driving her son to school. Ignoring his protests to not get involved, she strides toward the group of three and asks the first of them (a guy) who did it. She gets a douchy look of “buzz off lady, there’s nothing you can do” for her trouble, and downs him with a knee to the groin. She steps to the next one and repeats her question, this time facing a monster of fable.

    Understandably unfazed by her pathetic male counterpart groaning on the floor next to her, she delivers a majestically glaring douchy look of “buzz off lady – not only is there nothing you can do here, but as your old failing eyes hopefully show you – I am the invincible *female* variation of high school bully; do not presume anything in the presence of such a legendary creature in her own territory, one who cannot be so trivially-*UGH*”, as Mildred drops her with a knee to the groin.

    For doing the seemingly impossible in a in retrospect deceivingly simple and elegant maneuver in downing a kind-of-hot female high school bully with a knee to the groin, Mildred Hayes has officially earned my #1 spot of most badass movie characters of all time.

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