Brow Beat

Three Billboards Centers Female Vengeance, But It’s Really About the Salvation of Men

Three Billboards lobs incendiaries, but there’s more smoke than fire.

Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opened last month to wide acclaim, especially for its timeliness. National conversations about the endemic nature of sexual harassment and assault, punctuated staccato-style by the abrupt downfalls of famous men, have reflected the disorientation many of us feel about this sudden shift in the cultural atmosphere, as well as the confusion about the correct response to accused artists, the charges against whom range from uncomfortable comments in the workplace to rape. In bracing contrast, writer-director Martin McDonagh’s third film proffers clear-eyed determination. With an unblinking, unflinching Frances McDormand at its center, Three Billboards channels the anger of the current moment through its Molotov cocktail-hurling anti-heroine, Mildred Hayes. But the film ultimately sacrifices its feminist bona fides to run-of-the-mill Hollywood sexism and McDonagh’s cartoonish vision of female rage. Those seeking a break from real-life misogyny will find no respite here.

Three Billboards takes its name from the trio of signs that McDormand’s Mildred commissions to provoke the local small-town police into investigating the rape and murder of her teenage daughter Angela, which has gone unsolved for seven months. In stark, all-caps red and black, the billboards read, “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Like many other people in the town, Mildred knows that the police chief, played with aw-shucks charm by Woody Harrelson, has terminal cancer, and she displays compassion for Willoughby as a fellow citizen, but as a victim’s mother, she’s furious at him. She advocates for her daughter to the point of unreasonableness, because no one else will. When Mildred’s priest (Nick Searcy) stops by her house to tell her that the billboards are eroding the goodwill the congregation accorded her after Angela’s death, the scene makes for one of the script’s most empathetic observations: People expect women to grieve in ways deemed decorous and unchallenging to the status quo.

Such feminist moments have allowed McDonagh to call Mildred “an iconic, new type of female hero” on a press tour that’s doubled as a victory lap after largely rapturous film-festival reviews (from, it must be noted, a mostly white, mostly male critical corps). Mildred is rarely seen out of her Rosie the Riveter-inspired overalls and bandanna, even donning the workwear on a first date with Peter Dinklage’s besotted James. McDonagh says he created Mildred in part as a corrective: He was “conscious” that his previous films, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, were bereft of meaty roles for women. (McDonagh’s theater work fares moderately better in this regard.) And so, in language echoing recent discussions about female representation on screen, most recently about Wonder Woman, he, rather hubristically, imagined Mildred as an icon that “little girls” could look up to and emulate.

Three Billboards’ initial appeal lies in its tonal slipperiness between a somber drama of small-town intimacy-bordering-on-claustrophobia and a chatty fantasy of Tarantino-esque hyperviolence. Likewise, Mildred shifts between those two modes: the mother who’s finally had enough and the vigilante who’ll break any law to right the wrongs done to her. But as the film progresses, McDonagh loses track of the tricky balance necessary to make Mildred both a recognizable human being and a cinematic badass. An early instance of her increasingly questionable judgment is the entirely preventable pain that the words “RAPED WHILE DYING” causes her high-school-aged son (Lucas Hedges), who has to look at the billboards every day. Similarly, the bullying he suffers at school because of the signs’ unpopularity around town is only acknowledged in passing. (One of the many indications that McDonagh wrote Three Billboards eight years ago is that all of the bullying is in person and offscreen; there isn’t a cell phone or computer anywhere, let alone a fervent discussion board on Topix.)

Mildred might be justified in taking a drill to her disapproving dentist’s thumbnail after he sadistically punishes her for the billboards with his Novocaine needle. But her accusation to her priest that he’s complicit in pedophilia because the clergyman joined the Catholic Church is wholly nonsensical. More horrifying is her reaction to someone throwing a soda can at her windshield during a school drop-off. She demands from the first two children she spots that they identify the culprit, and when they can’t, Mildred kicks them both in the crotch. By the time she throws a half-dozen Molotov cocktails into the police station as vengeance for her billboards being set on fire, Three Billboards hasn’t just stripped Mildred of her sympathy, but her humanity as well. Her unhinged rage—expressions of which are framed as invitations to spout you-go-girl-isms at the screen—makes her look silly instead, and the righteousness of her cause suffers as a result. Going around town like a caricature of a bad cop, assaulting children and destroying property with impunity, makes her just like the worst person in town after Angela’s killer: Sam Rockwell’s Officer Jason Dixon.

That McDonagh seems to have no idea how awful and cartoonish Mildred becomes is supported by the filmmaker’s conviction that Jason deserves a substantial redemption arc. Known around town as a torturer of black citizens (with shrugging tolerance from Chief Willoughby), Jason makes for the film’s most artificial and tone-deaf component. The ne’er-do-well officer initially blames the billboards for Willoughby’s suicide (actually a response to his rapid physical decline, not Mildred’s goadings). In the vilest scene, a drunk Jason pistol-whips the signs’ owner (Caleb Landry Jones), throws him out of a second-story window, punches his secretary, walks downstairs and then kicks the bleeding Red once again in the middle of the street. Later, he returns to the station in the middle of the night to retrieve a post-mortem letter from Willoughby encouraging the officer to embrace goodness, which happens to be right when Mildred decides to burn down the police station. The station goes up in flames, but Jason escapes with Angela’s case file and sets out to crack the case, badge or no badge. (The fire begs yet another question about Mildred’s credibility as a feminist icon: Does she care that her act of violence will deny justice to every other victim of a crime in Ebbings, including possibly other victims of sexual assault?)

The fact that McDonagh wrote the film nearly a decade ago, before the Black Lives Matter movement, is telling. In Three Billboards, the terrorization of black citizens can apparently end by plucking a bad apple from the bunch and changing hearts and minds with a heartfelt letter. The film’s focus on first Willoughby’s absolution for not solving Angela’s case, then Jason’s for repeatedly abusing his power as a police officer, increasingly pull attention away from the victim, so that a teenage girl’s rape and murder eventually becomes the springboard for a pair of bad cops’ redemption. Women suffer, often spectacularly, so that men can better themselves—a trope that’s come to be known as “fridging.” And as long as we’re pointing out hypocrisies, Three Billboards’ condemnations of police brutality against black people are attenuated by the film’s lack of any substantial black characters. In fact, one of the film’s three black characters, Mildred’s friend and coworker, played by Amanda Warren, even looks cheerful and eager to help out after yet another abuse of power by the police lands her in a multi-day jail stay over a bullshit marijuana charge.

As film critic April Wolfe pointed out in her review, there’s far bloodier hijinks in McDonagh’s first two films than in Three Billboards. But both In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths concern the double-crosses between hitmen, who for all their disposability might as well be dots in a Pac-Man maze. Hitmen may be mournful or charismatic, but they lack moral weight. In contrast, nearly all the violence in Three Billboards is institutionally based, and presented as such. Angela’s rape and murder are part of a larger pattern, as are the domestic abuse that Mildred’s ex-husband (John Hawkes) inflicts on her and the beatings and intimidations that Jason visits on those who get in his way. In the end, though, Mildred’s deranged fancies and Jason’s unconvincing absolution reduce those all-too-real horrors to an impetus for male salvation.

The sting from the diminishment of the issue of gendered violence is salted by the objectifying or mean-spirited treatment that nearly every other significant female character receives from McDonagh. McDormand appears without makeup, her male co-stars are similarly deglammed, and Ebbings is portrayed as the town equivalent of a hole in the wall, but every woman under 40 seems to have been transported from a casting call in Century City. The age and attractiveness difference between 56-year-old Harrelson and 36-year-old Abbie Cornish, who’s costumed like a J. Crew model, is substantial and distracting. At least Cornish isn’t asked to be both eye candy and a punching bag. Such is the fate of Samara Weaving’s 19-year-old Penelope, whose reaction to watching her older boyfriend choke his ex-wife, while his son holds a knife to his dad’s neck, is an empty-headed smile and a matter-of-fact request to use the bathroom. Later, in a scene when Mildred finally gives her blessing to the May–December couple, Penelope asks whether the sport with the horses, about which she’s currently reading a book, is called polo or polio. I’d call the character sitcomish, but that’s insulting toward sitcoms. The sign store’s secretary (Kerry Condon) is likewise revealed as a beautiful idiot.

Penelope is around Angela’s age, but Mildred leaves the teenager dating a man she knows to be violent without a single warning. The shot of McDormand walking away from the bewildered but relieved couple in a restaurant is “cool,” I guess, but the abdication of any responsibility toward another woman who might be in the same dangers she faced is demoralizing—and McDonagh doesn’t know it. The lack of relatable female characters, combined with the ethical indifference toward violence against women, makes Three Billboards already feel like a relic. And it’s not as if all of the elements that McDonagh’s working with can’t add up to something powerful and morally consistent. The BBC/Netflix series Happy Valley also centers on a middle-aged woman in a small town reeling from her daughter’s rape and death (here, from suicide), while managing to be funny and suspenseful and compassionate and brutal. But Happy Valley treats violence against women like the scourge it is. For McDonagh, it’s merely a plot device and an opportunity to #NotAllMen.