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Martin McDonagh’s ‘Three Billboards’ Exposes Terrible Truths We’d Rather Not See

Martin McDonagh’s excellent new film confronts us with the everyday nature of systemic violence, racism, and abuse. Will we turn a blind eye?

With his latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh seems to have been anointed the new patron saint of the Midwestern movie. It’s a worthy heir to Fargo and Take Shelter, while also being completely its own creature—not to mention the best movie this year about grief.

Speaking about his new film, McDonagh confessed that he didn’t think of it as a particularly violent film despite all of the violence in it. (There are multiple instances of assault, as well as a couple of deaths and an act of arson.) “I think it’s kind of the way I see the world,” he said. “You see the darkness and the sadness or the bleakness, but you can’t let it get you down. So you laugh at it, or with it, or through it, to get to a place that’s cathartic or livable.”

“Cathartic or livable” is Three Billboards’ backbone. The film is built on grief—a force that’s been unusually prevalent at the multiplex this year—which is itself inherently stuck between the two states. It’s a staggeringly powerful force, but it’s utterly futile, too; it makes people capable of unbelievable, extraordinary, awful things, but it can’t bring back the dead. And in the case of this film, catharsis isn’t quite possible despite the flames set in order to try to reach it. So, “livable” it is.

At the center of the conflagration is Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes. Seven months ago, her daughter was raped and murdered, and in the time that’s passed, not a single arrest has been made. Determined to get things moving, she buys ads on three billboards that read simply, “Raped while dying. And still no arrests. How come, Chief Willoughby?” Her action strikes a number of the townspeople as extreme, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg as Mildred’s search for justice starts to unsettle the precarious balance of the town.

The film is as specific to its locale in the American Midwest as McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy and Aran Islands Trilogy are to County Galway. The un-balancing of Ebbing, as it were, is the un-balancing of the stereotypical “Pleasantville” veneer that tends to color most depictions of the region. Docility hides stolid emotional repression and everyday ugliness that’d be easy to condemn and weaponize in anyone else’s hands. This is the kind of town in which the police chief jokes that there’s no way of cleaning up with force: get rid of the racists and only homophobes will remain, he says, and vice versa.

To his credit, McDonagh doesn’t make the Midwest the butt of the joke; cultural context and cause-and-effect aren’t excuses for the things these characters do. They’ve made their own hell already, whether it’s personal or systemic, and the story—though notably not salvation—lies in watching them try to get through it.

That said, it’s no less difficult to watch the ways the townspeople treat each other. Systemic violence, racism, and domestic abuse run rampant, and in ways that are sometimes taken for granted instead of addressed and corrected. Take, for instance, the relationship between Mildred and her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes). It’s implied that he beat her throughout their marriage, and he attacks her again when he confronts her about the billboards. Their son (Lucas Hedges) only manages to split up the fight by threatening his father with a knife. When Charlie lets go, the scene proceeds with a bizarre sort of calmness: none of them say a word about what’s just happened. Rather, they simply put the room back together, setting the dining table back up and retrieving the scattered dishes. It’s darkness, sadness, bleakness, but just as grief is made up of infinite layers, so is the film.

While the language that the characters bandy about is vulgar at best, that bluntness is an effective offset to how delicately McDonagh handles the effects of grief. Mildred is tough, but there’s a part of that attitude that’s performative. The same goes for Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is dying of cancer, and for Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, whose performance as a violent bigot is likely to be the film’s biggest lightning rod). It’s a mirror, in a way, of the discrepancy between how Ebbing looks and how Ebbing is, and the moments in which they break are easily the best in the film. “Livable” isn’t easy. It’s learning to live with pain rather than without it.

Is there a point to all this grief and rage? It won’t right the wrongs that have already been committed, nor will it erase a leopard’s spots, yet everyone lashes out to protest as things around them crumble. In other words, it’s an easy cynic’s recipe. But McDonagh, against all odds, is an optimist. A look at the rest of his work will back this up—both In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are dark films, but not without an inherent hope in the better nature of humanity.

Three Billboards isn’t likely to sit easily with most—and it shouldn’t. The happy ending that McDonagh offers us is true to life rather than true to fiction. There’s no final reckoning or reconciliation; the movie ends on a note of ambiguity. But anything else would feel cheap, as cheap as calling it a “violent film” when it’s so miniscule a part of what McDonagh is trying to do. This is a distinctly human film—everyone is both good and bad without pandering one way or another to forgiveness—made all the more so by how inextricable it is from its locale. “Cathartic or livable” might as well be the Midwestern ethos; it’s the land of displacement, or being between two poles, and Three Billboards is a rare movie to so perfectly capture how there’s still beauty (and hope) in it.