Three Billboards East of Ebbing, Missouri – A brew of comedy and violence too dark to see the depth

This is my review of: Three Billboards East of Ebbing, Missouri.

Furious over the lack of progress in tracking down her daughter’s brutal murderer, Mildred Hayes spends money she can ill afford to install three huge billboards on the outskirts of the well-named, typical Southern states small town of Ebbing, Missouri. The stark wording reads: “Raped while Dying”;  “And still no arrest”; “How come Chief Willoughby?”  The conservative, gobsmacked townsfolk are understandably appalled and disapproving; not least because Willoughby seems to be a decent man , although lamentably ineffectual in failing to fire his incompetent, racist side-kick Dixon, who is shown at one point torturing black suspects.  Some critics have deplored writer-director Martin McDonagh’s failure to treat race relations more sensitively, but that is not the main point of this film, focused as it is on Mildred’s desire to avenge her daughter’s death. When Mildred’s provocative action arouses an obsessive hostility in Dixon the stage is set for a one-woman feud with the police.

Mildred is a deeply flawed character, almost as bad as Dixon. Aggressive and foul-mouthed, she overacts when her wishes are obstructed. Perhaps she is driven by a sense of guilt over having parted with her daughter on bad terms, but she shows remarkably little concern for her long-suffering and surprisingly pleasant (in view of what he has had to put up with) son – it is the minor characters who are likeable in this film.  Just as Dixon may have been “driven to the bad” by a ghastly, smothering mother for whom he cares, Mildred may have been damaged in ways which are not made clear, apart from the inference that her ex-husband has left her for a teenage bimbo. It is perhaps “out of character” that such a tough, independent-minded woman should have tolerated a partner’s violence, and appear resentful over his departure. In a typical juxtaposition of violence and humour, we see  him one moment with his hands round Mildred’s  neck, the left  colluding with her in a sheepish, eye-rolling glance over his girl-friends inanity.

This film has won many awards and plaudits, audiences may be excited by the violent drama and be entertained by the “no holds barred” interplay of comedy and sociopathic brutality.  Compared to “run-of-the-mill” thrillers and action films, the film has an original take on the theme of victimhood, does not flinch at breaking taboos, and gives a talented and well-cast female actor the chance for a lead part. However, Frances Mc Dormand has the ability to rise to greater challenges than offered here. The film lacks the subtlety and depth to succeed at a deeper level.

In a recent interview, writer-director Martin McDonagh has deflected some critics with the explanation that, “the film isn’t about good or bad, left or right. It’s just about trying to find the spark of humanity in people – all people”. But this is not enough to make a film outstanding or even good. For that, it must enable one to see the world – people or situations – in a different way, which does not happen in this case. The arch-baddie is too exaggerated in his stupidity, bigotry and gratuitous violence to be credible, his dramatic change of heart is implausible. Some characters may indeed  display sparks of humanity, but that does not stop them from planning vicious acts of revenge likely to prove counterproductive, self-destructive or even unjust in being directed against the wrong targets.

Although writer-director Martin McDonagh may simply have run out of steam at the end, at least the ambiguous ending seems well-judged. Defenders of the film may argue that in taking an amoral stance, McDonagh leaves it to us to reflect on the issues involved.

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