Martin McDonagh’s Provocations Seem Well-Worn In ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

If you look at the IMDb stills from Martin McDonagh’s first short film, “Six Shooter,” you can find a picture of Brendan Gleeson holding a pistol up to the head of a bunny. McDonagh’s first full-length feature, In Bruges, notably featured a scene of Colin Farrell karate chopping a racist dwarf. Which is to say, McDonagh’s work has not traditionally been characterized by the subtle (which was part of why we loved him). This is once again true in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but unlike in his much-loved (especially by me) debut, this time around, McDonagh doesn’t seem to have a clue about the people or the place that he’s writing about. All I could think watching it was: that’s not how people talk, that’s not how people act, that’s not how things work — that’s not how anything works. And if you can’t get the small stuff right, the big stuff doesn’t matter.

In Three Billboards‘ opening scene, we see Frances McDormand’s Mildred paying for the billboards of the (admittedly great) title. The ad salesman, Caleb Landry Jones’s Red Welby, is a bit confused as to why she wants to buy it, on account of the only reason people drive down that road is “if they got lost or they’re retards” — a line that will become a callback gag three or four times. Now, I’m not particularly put off by the word “retard” — I understand why it’s deemed offensive, but I also understand that it’s still in broad usage, and that every medical term for someone who’s clinically slow eventually becomes an insult — but it’s one of those words that’s funnier when one character uses it (especially if it’s Colin Farrell). Then it can be justified as just the way that particular guy talks. If every character in the movie uses it, it seems like the writer of the movie just really likes the word “retard.”

In any case, she pays the man for the signs, which read: “RAPED WHILE DYING. AND STILL NO ARRESTS. HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” (Welby, Willoughby… can we get a Winterby, a Williamsby, maybe a Wilburby?)

The signs refer to Mildred’s daughter, who apparently died a horrible death in order to be treated like a prop in this misanthropic romp. She appears in one flashback in which she calls her mom a cunt. Chief Willoughby, meanwhile, is played by Woody Harrelson, who finds out about it over Easter dinner. “Goddammit, what is it?” He yells into the phone. “I’m eatin’ goddamn Easter dinner!”

It’s funny because he swears in front of his children, get it? Kind of like when Ralph Fiennes did it in In Bruges. Anyway, Chief Willoughby is mad about the billboards, but not as mad as his deputy, Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, who apparently was also in some hot water over police brutality. Which we find out when he brings Mildred down to the station and she asks, “How’s it going in the n*gger-torturin’ business, Dixon?” (The characters generally finish all their lines by stating the name of who they’re talking to so we don’t forget)

At which point Dixon gets even angrier, correcting her that it’s “people of color-torturin’ business now,” a back-and-forth that might’ve been funny in 1998. The surprise is part of the humor, but in 2017 it’s not really surprising. It sort of just feels like McDonagh thought characters yelling the n-word looked fun and thought “Maybe if I set a film in America I can write characters yelling the n-word too!”

The film also relies on us buying the premise that everyone in town turns on the grieving mother of a murdered rape victim because she called out the chief of police in some billboards no one will see. Also, I guess, because she’s kind of salty. When some kids throw a soda at her car, she gets out and kicks them in the nuts. When their female friend makes a move to protest, Mildred kicks her in the crotch too. Again, I think “Lol, cunt punt” was meme like five years ago.

In any case, I could will myself to accept the Mildred vs. the town feud because it’s clearly central to the premise, but once I’ve accepted that, all I get for my troubles is more outlandish situations and characters speaking in bizarre vernacular that doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard in real life. When nothing is believable, nothing works.

Moreover, does McDonagh think Middle America is one giant Jerry Springer episode? Where people just go around cunt punting each other and shouting “retard?” My screening audience sure reacted like it was, hooting and hollering and clapping at all the appropriate moments. There’s an odd pro-wrestling feel to Ebbing, because of how broad and over-the-top the characters are. But wrestling generally has subtext, characters that are “types,” and represent public fears and prejudices. Ebbing‘s characters aren’t that well differentiated, and all kind of seem like McDonagh’s most convenient vehicle for saying retard or the n-word or “cunt” in that moment. There’s no satire or build, just desperate flailing to try to get a rise out of us.