None of the characters in British-Irish writer and director Martin McDonagh’s tragicomedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri are ever as clear-cut as one might think on first sight. That much is a given if you’re used to any of McDonagh’s earlier work, including the absurd yet melancholy charms of his 2008 feature debut In Bruges, which humanises two downbeat hitmen and their rudderless exile in Bruges, forming one part unlikely buddy comedy and one part savage violence, outrageous dialogue, and a lot of cocaine.
The same could be said about Three Billboards, in that it balances a very fine line between two very broad genres – disturbing tragedy, and dark comedy. We meet Mildred Hayes, played ferociously by the ever-impeccable Frances McDormand, a grieving and angry mother demanding justice seven months after the case of her daughter’s rape and murder has still gone unsolved. McDormand is an actress who excels in roles as hardened or unforgiving women, and her capacity for steely and levelled line delivery adds weight to some of McDonagh’s most absurd monologues, as well as other more prescient tirades against everything from her small (and small-minded) American town, the police department, and the Church. It is the power that she brings to every single one of these scenes that anchors Three Billboards to some kind of emotional reality, and allows the extremities of its more violent or comedic aspects to shine without turning into farce.
So, a fine line this movie does balance, and often with little care about whether it slips into either genre territory too much, or for too long. Like In Bruges, the film’s tone flips with startling speed, and often at the least expected – or least appropriate – moment. In the hands of a lesser director or writer, this could easily become a haphazard and disloyal portrayal of the central themes of redemption, humanity, and people’s perceptions of justice that lie at the heart of the madness. But somehow, McDonagh crafts a film whose central message stands out even stronger thanks to the mania of bitterness, conflict, and curse-heavy dialogue going on around it. This is perhaps because of the way he manipulates his characters, and his knowledge of how we as the audience will anticipate their actions. Sam Rockwell as the racist cop Jason Dixon bags a lot of the script’s best one-liners and acts in the impulsive, corrupt ways one would expect from a policeman accused of torturing a black person in custody. Yet halfway through the film, his characterisation as a brute is called into question, and in doing so, forces us to think, too: can a character used to criticise America’s police system deserve to be given a second chance?
Not that McDonagh redeems Dixon completely, and in interviews, he has made his stance on police brutality quite clear. But it is still a bold move to use a bigoted cop as a vehicle for raising questions of humanity and redemption in 2017, with the real world’s politics still being so sensitive. Maybe McDonagh thought this could work to his advantage, if people were debating the topics of his film. I’d probably have to agree with him, here; from a strictly film standpoint, the potential for both cruelty and kindness from a character like Dixon is something very compelling to watch, especially when displayed in the outlandish directorial style that signposts a Martin McDonagh film.
I think if we look at the wider film, though, it’s not just Dixon whose intentions and personality remain somewhat ambiguous (sometimes frustratingly so). Mildred herself is a force to be reckoned with, exhibiting extreme harshness to her daughter Angela in the one and only gut-wrenching flashback we are given to a time when she was alive, but also a surprising level of sympathy towards some of society’s worst offerings. Her motivations are seemingly transparent – she just wants her daughter’s killer caught – but this single train of thought, which is sustained throughout the film, also branches off into smaller missions, often to pay off the debts she owes people, or just to serve out some cosmic karma to people who truly deserve it.
Ultimately, this is a film about what people are capable of doing to each other, but also of how much they are capable of changing. In the vein of most whodunits or thrillers nowadays, McDonagh slyly doesn’t answer the film’s central, surface-level question – but I never expected him to, anyway. If he did, it would almost invalidate the commentary he’s crafted on small-town America, its people, and their capabilities. Using the murder case as a semi-MacGuffin instead leaves the film on a note of ambivalence that reflects the key ideas about humanity he clearly wanted to portray (though it doesn’t mean Angela’s fate is treated insensitively – what happened to her is still a valuable piece of the film’s bizarre tapestry). Whether you’re a corrupt cop, a vengeful parent or a dying police chief, or none of the above – maybe you’re just another one of the town’s peripheral oddities who come and go along the way – Three Billboards seems to say that we all share the unifying trait of being people capable of doing near enough anything, no matter how atrocious. But it’s whether you actually choose to do these things that marks out what kind of person you really are.