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Let's Talk About Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Fordham University

culture

Let's Talk About Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Shall we?

Christian Eble

3.4.18

I’m breaking my trend of reviewing and discussing what’s what in the New York City theater scene to talk about what has turned out to be the most polarizing movie of this awards season.

I recently went and saw the unfathomably bizarre new movie, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” last week, and…..what the fuck did I watch?

The movie, which has been nominated for 7 Academy Awards (and has already won four Golden Globe awards, including Best Motion Picture - Drama) has been the center of a blistering debate about what exactly is the overall message of the film. But, more on that later.

The movie was written and directed by acclaimed playwright Martin McDonagh, whose theatrical works include The Pillowman, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and many more. One thing can certainly be said for McDonagh’s canon: it’s dark, it’s shocking, and it’s supremely dramatic. And his “Three Billboards” is no exception.

Here’s a brief summary of the movie from Rotten Tomatoes: “After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter's murder case, Mildred Hayes (Academy Award winner Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Academy Award nominee Woody Harrelson), the town's revered chief of police. When his second-in-command Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother's boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing's law enforcement is only exacerbated.”

Hell hath no fury like Frances McDormand (full stop), and her performance in this movie is no exception: it is, perhaps, the best of her career, already garnering her tons of awards and nominations. The movie is also chock full of some fantastic performances across the board (specifically from Peter Dinklage and Lucas Hedges).

However, the real controversy of this film lies in Sam Rockwell’s performance (and character), for which he was also nominated for an Academy Award. Sam Rockwell plays a dimwitted, quick to anger, openly racist cop named Officer Dixon. Rockwell’s performance is also just fine for me (an unpopular opinion), but it’s precisely the trajectory of his character that has so many people up in arms.

At the start of the movie, it’s revealed that Dixon tortured a black man who was in custody at their local police station; however, nobody in the town or police force really seem to care. This movie is set in 2017, making the aforementioned exponentially more alarming.

After Dixon finds out that Mildred paid for the billboards, he aggravates the conflict by arresting Mildred’s boss and friend, Denise, for “marijuana possession” (it should be noted that Denise is also black). His rationale is that if Mildred can’t work, then she can’t continue to pay for the billboards. However, it’s clear that Denise’s arrest is both completely unwarranted and racially charged. This puts Mildred in a precarious position, because she is now out of work and essentially responsible for her friend’s arrest.

As the movie progresses, Dixon ends up getting fired from the local police force because he brutally beats up the head of the ad agency that is responsible for displaying the billboards. Shortly after Dixon is fired, somebody sets the three billboards on fire, and Mildred assumes that it was Dixon. In retaliation, she throws a series of Molotov cocktails at the police station, setting it aflame and badly damaging the building. There is a wrench thrown into the machine, however: Mildred doesn’t realize that Dixon is inside the police station when she sets it on fire, and he is severely burned in the process of escaping. Additionally, the only thing that Dixon saves from the building is the case file for Mildred’s daughter, which Mildred finds after Dixon passes out from his injuries.

After Dixon begins to heal and is released from the hospital, he overhears a man bragging in a bar one night about committing a crime similar to the one Mildred’s daughter died from. Dixon gets into a fight with the man (embedding some of his DNA under his fingernails in the process), and uses the DNA as evidence in the case. The test results turn out negative, and the police force is back to square one. For whatever reason, Mildred forgives Dixon for his transgressions and thanks him for trying to find her daughter’s killer. The movie ends with the pair teaming up to drive to Idaho and kill the man that beat Dixon up at the bar, on the grounds that he should be killed for bragging about the rape he committed (we think?).

And...that’s it.

Martin McDonagh has written and directed a movie that is jam-packed with every kind of adversity that exists: racism, poverty, domestic violence, murder, rape, homophobia, terminal illness, unjust arrest, assault---the list actually continues, but I’ll stop there.

Yet, after introducing this cavalcade of oppression, McDonagh chooses to focus on the redemption of a racist character who doesn’t do anything to merit it.


People are woefully mistaking this quasi-rehabilitation as “redeeming the underdog,” when in fact, amidst a sea of incredibly timely and vital issues, McDonagh prefers to focus on humanizing Dixon’s character. There are infinite ways that McDonagh could have ended this film, but instead we are left racking our brains and asking: what exactly was the message behind this film?

According to AVClub, McDonagh says of his film, “We’re not making films for six year olds, we’re not making The Avengers. We’re trying to do something that’s a bit little more difficult and more thoughtful.” He called his film “deliberately messy and difficult,” which might be the biggest cop out I’ve ever heard. Why introduce these issues at all if you're not going to address them?

It’s a shame that this film sets up so many avenues of exploration and leaves us with collective blue balls. It's even more shameful that this film’s release coincides with an especially difficult time in America, which again begs the question, “why now?” This movie is spawning a complex discourse of Herculean proportions, yet there’s really no pay off, considering the movie doesn’t really have a clear theme other than the ensuing aftermath of sexual violence. Whatever the case, it’s certainly one of the most thought provoking films I’ve seen in recent memory, and one that’ll continue to stir up controversy as the Awards season progresses.