A few jokes from Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) are already infamous. Rookie cop Jason (Sam Rockwell) splits hairs over whether he’s a ‘person-of-colour torturer’ or a ‘nigger torturer’. Our heroine, Mildred (Frances McDormand), spars with her son who calls her a ‘cunt’. Barfly James (Peter Dinklage, forlorn but dignified) is demeaned by Mildred’s ex-husband, who repeatedly calls him a ‘fuckin midget’. What, or who, are we laughing at? Clearly the humour derives from a taboo about what can (and can’t) be said. So is the butt of the joke the squirming liberal who cares more about issues of semantics than real politics? But the libs aren’t squirming, or, if they are, they’re squirming with pleasure. Three Billboards has received glowing reviews in just about every liberal broadsheet. The snowflakes aren’t offended. In fact, they find McDonagh’s script fearless, caustic and refreshing. So perhaps Jason’s alt-right chauvinism is the object of derision. The tendency towards extreme provocation in pursuit of free speech is risible. But Jason gets the endearingly funny lines, a whole narrative arc and perfect redemption. Who’s left to laugh at? Only those who are silenced by the story: the invisible, tortured black person; the single mother; the disabled man.
Park this issue to one side. Maybe we’re not laughing at anyone, but rather the collision of concepts. What a daring, bombastic script! But here is the real problem. Not only do the gags operate on the level of language, the whole film does. There is no weight to the characters and actions or to the issues explored. They shimmer like pixels on a screen. Long before community paragon Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, doing his best) has become a disembodied voice, reading a suicide note like it’s a bedtime story, his lines feel abstracted from the body that projects them.
The film is funny – not, it has to be said, as funny as In Bruges (2008, also McDonagh), or other recent black comedies like P’tit Quinquin (2014) or Four Lions (2010), but funny nonetheless. There are some arresting images. A long-shot of Mildred striding between flaming billboards transforms her into a heroic form: the fire is the same fire that licks the Klan cross and the cop car, and she becomes a revolutionary figure in its glow. Elsewhere, McDonagh proves himself to be a writer first, filmmaker a distant second. Any film whose heroine detests the police so much she petrol bombs a station must be commended. (Although it’s worth remembering that Three Billboard’s coalition against the state consists of a small business owner, an advertising agency and a renegade officer.)
The film’s most touted virtue is the characters – supposedly subtle, complex and surprising. Mildred is tough, plain-speaking but soft too: she comforts Willoughby, whispering ‘it’s okay baby’ after he coughs blood on her face, a scene which telegraphs its intentions so clearly it’s embarrassing. (We also know Mildred is tender because she flips a cockroach off its back and talks to wild deer.) Woody Harrelson is goodliness plain and simple – a superlative husband, father and public servant. But…he’s got cancer! Jason – dismissed by some reviewers as ‘the racist cop’ – is more interesting. He gets confused easily and constantly loses things; his desk is scattered with kids comics and figurines. He was held back at cop school, still lives at home with his mother and slavishly follows her commands. A case of arrested development? Yet he makes sophisticated linguistic gags and shows ingenuity gathering evidence. There’s also a manic purity to the moral crusade that he embarks on with Mildred. Rockwell plays him as a buffoon one moment and pensive, philosophical the next. All this suggests Jason is more than complex – he’s fantastical.