So much of the time Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels great. Then one of its black characters enters a scene. It’s rough seeing an able movie so deftly shoot itself in the foot, cos as elegant and taut as Martin McDonagh’s plotting and dialogue feels he is totally unable to write people of colour at all. There’ve been signs, think about how he chooses to portray the Vietnamese priest or the African American dog walker in Seven Psychopaths. Find a copy of his first American play, A Behanding in Spokane, look at the character of Toby. The signs have always been there.
In Three Billboards the white characters are there to drive the plot, have feelings and motivations, capture us and be understood. The black characters trip onto the screen, they’re without exception laconic, prepared with a wry smile or witty remark ready to provide some momentary aid. If the character is a woman they’ll provide emotional support, listening and validation. If it’s a dude they’ll be able to provide some more concrete assistance, but they’re always just there. They get nothing of their own in this joint and McDonagh, for as woke as he being making a script about racist middle-American cops, seems unable to frame them with anything other than this creepy paternalistic lens.
It is notable how collected and dignified these characters are, by the way. They’re the only ones in the entire film who are that way. Everyone else is a complete hot mess the whole way through. It’s the way his writing works I guess, the brand of comedy that you get from when you allow idiot assholes to grind up against each other. The sorta thing that you’d feel viscerally uncomfortable hearing at a bar, but you’re safe in a cinema because there’s no change of getting caught in the inevitable tangle.
Tangles are fun to watch on screen though, especially when they brought to life by such great actors. Frances McDormand is Mildred the mother who erects the titular billboards criticising the police for not having solved her teenage daughter’s murder. Woody Harrelson is the Police Chief, Wilson, who’s struggling to manage the bad publicity and the unruly elements within his department. Sam Rockwell is Dixon, one of said unruly elements, an ill-disciplined, unqualified officer who was very pointedly not found guilty of abusing a black person in his custody.
These figures bounce off and against in each other and the other interesting people that populate this version of Ebbing in a variety of new and inventive ways. Again, I complemented McDonagh’s plotting before, and after the bloated self-referential beast that was Seven Psychopaths this feels like it takes a blessed shape. Even as we chart the grand downfall the screenplay keeps a focus without feeling like it is imposing a structure upon these characters. They shuffle and rearrange and it’s through their intersection that the purpose becomes clear.
The film don’t want us to despise at our leads. Even Rockwell’s fool, the easiest target of them all is always brought into sharp relief by his relationship with Željko Ivanek’s station desk clerk. Naw, it wants you to instead laugh at the idiocy of airheaded young women, at Peter Dinklage’s stature, at the ineffectual (if noble) queerness of Caleb Landry Jones’ advertising salesman. They’ve all been fairly consistent parts of the man’s work too, at the very least he managed to avoid the fat jokes this time around.
I am reminded of David Foster Wallace writing criticism of Bret Easton Ellis. The gist of it goes that sure, you may believe that the world is an irredeemably shitty place but that’s no excuse to write literature that portrays the world you see without further commenting on it. McDonagh seems to consider here that cleansing is borne through understanding. Chief Willoughby is able to find deliverance through his comprehension of society and his place in it, the film ends with the rest on their way to figuring it out.
But whose lives does he as a filmmaker choose to invite us into. The racist cops and the vengeful mother. There is life in them too, the film screams at us while wilfully choosing not to comprehend the interiority of everyone else. Those characters and archetypes that the film is happy to wilful and gleefully victimise in order to make a joke. The jokes are funny, my theatre laughed a lot, me included. I think I’d laugh at it again but I cannot shake the residual dirtiness that clings to me now thinking about it.
The problem is that Martin McDonagh is a really good filmmaker and a very funny man. The charms of his films are irresistible even if they’re taking on forms which you’d rather not. Like, think about Sam Rockwell, he’s a perfectly honed tool in McDonagh’s belt. There’s just about nobody who knows how to deploy that man as keenly. He’s the same with everyone on his crew, he knows how to get the work but not how to make it work together.
I’ve laughed before while playing Cards Against Humanity; if you’re among friends and in the mood it’s easy to. It’s still a bad game, poorly designed and retrograde the humour it strives towards. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the Cards Against Humanity of films, enjoyable but despicable.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is currently screening in UK cinemas.