By Amy-Lea Wright
Frances McDormand plays the strong-minded Mildred Hayes, mother of a murdered teenager, in Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-nominated dark comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Tired of local law enforcement and thirsting for justice for her daughter, Mildred buys advertising space on three successive billboards to make a statement: her daughter was ‘raped while dying, and still no arrests, how come, Chief Willoughby?’
To be quite frank, I would’ve walked out of the cinema if it wasn’t for Frances McDormand’s stellar performance as Mildred Hayes. Clad in a bandana and blue-collar worker overalls with her sleeves rolled up and meaning business from the outset, Mildred bears resemblance to Rosie the Riveter and I was half-expecting one of her billboards to read ‘We Can Do It!’
McDonagh should be applauded for how he articulates the rage and frustration women feel in a misogynistic justice system. Mildred is a foul-mouthed single parent and warrior queen who just won’t back down. The film is at its strongest when dealing with her grief and anger towards Ebbing’s police department, or as she ever so endearingly calls them, ‘fuckheads.’ The film is at its weakest, however, when McDonagh turns the lens towards those ‘fuckheads.’
Many have been quick to accuse McDonagh of giving bigoted cop character Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, a redemption arc – as we find he’s beaten up black people in police custody but later emerges from a fire “like a phoenix” and is finally stirred into helping Mildred on her mission to track down her daughter’s killer. Is this really redemption? At no point does he start treating black people right; he’s portrayed as a racist idiot throughout.
Where McDonagh actually falters, is not through the characterisation of Dixon, but through the careless treatment of some urgently of-the-moment issues in the storyline. It doesn’t seem to commit to anything – even the protagonist changes every twenty minutes. It looks at police brutality against black people but doesn’t bother developing the black characters. It has Woody Harrelson playing the (only) ‘good cop’ but gives him a terminal illness. It looks at the rape and murder of a teenage girl but doesn’t care about her. It also makes a running joke out of another teenage girl who’s in a relationship with a middle-aged domestic abuser.
The casting of Peter Dinklage and even the creation of his character just feels like an excuse to get some ‘midget’ quips in. Those kinds of quips proved successful in films like In Bruges, but they feel unsophisticated and unnecessary here. For a story like Three Billboards, McDonagh’s style just didn’t work and it required a much more humanist approach. It’s his surface-level take on some very pertinent issues in society which is a let-down.
It’s difficult to see this film pick up an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Yet despite the gripes I have with McDonagh’s storyline, his wicked dialogue voiced through Mildred is some of the sharpest I’ve ever heard. Frances McDormand’s effortless, deadpan delivery of those outrageous lines had my jaw dropping into the popcorn box on more than one occasion, so it’s difficult to not see McDormand pick up an Oscar for Best Actress.