Why I, a Mildred Hayes of the World, Hated “Three Billboards”

Ladies, rejoice: Hollywood might decide we’re women this year.

by Cintra Wilson
Mar 4 2018, 10:17pm

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—the lavishly acclaimed effort by playwright-turned-auteur Martin McDonagh—is neither a comedy nor a drama. Nor is it a dramedy, which would be a successful fusion of the two. It’s a new form—one might call it a Comegy, or more accurately: a Coma.

Everyone I’ve talked to who has seen it was nonplussed, and generally agrees that it amounted to a baffling tangle of nothingness, but critics have been falling over themselves to praise it like it’s the second coming of Erin Brockovich, with visions of Oscars abuzz in their heads. At the Golden Globes, it won Best Picture, Drama; Best Director; Best Actress in a Drama; and Best Supporting Actor, while much of the world’s movie-going population and I have nominated it for “Most Puzzling Success.”

Never before in my career have I seen such a blizzard of critical laurels bestowed on such a hodge-podge of rookie filmmaking errors, built on a screenplay that, were I grading, would get a C- in an undergraduate class at NYU; replete with an undisguised cynicism at its core that derails all of its attempts to convey any emotional truth, let alone any decipherable message.

It almost begs the question as to whether it's possible that the same Russian meddlers who brought us Brexit and the Trump Presidency have decided that Martin McDonagh is their boy for awards season?

Three Billboards accomplishes nothing in terms of bridging the gravitational vacuum of bad faith between the sexes, but I fear it will be upheld as this year’s token tribute to the suffering of women.

Mildred Hayes, played by Francis McDormand, wears the same asexual mechanic jumpsuits I did at the height of last year’s post-election depression—and boy, she is mighty pissed—but the relatable similarities stopped there. Mildred seems post-sexual, post-female, almost post-human; she is a golem carved from the mud of impacted, unresolved grief. She’s more than a victim—she’s an unhinged, wrath-sick survivor.

The film begins when Mildred angrily purchases ad space on three abandoned billboards in order to publicly humiliate and denounce the local police chief for failing to prosecute anyone during the investigation of her teenage daughter’s rape and murder.

The biggest problem—the thing that is supposed to be the big “idea” and central thesis of this movie (if there is one, and that is a big IF), is stated in one of Mildred’s monologues somewhere in the first 20 pages. The gist of this, if you will: all men have it in them to be rapists and murderers; all male DNA should be kept on file; and all men should be considered guilty until proven innocent. Also, if you are in a tribe (such as Bloods, Crips, priests, police, etc.) you are just as culpable as any of your associates for any of the crimes one of your cohorts commit (“You joined the gang. You’re cupable,” she preaches to the town priest).

I believe it is this monologue that landed Three Billboards at the front of the Oscar race, because motion picture awards have always had an unsavory political tinge about them.

Each year, Hollywood, the self-styled designer conscience of American life, attempts to shed its additive light on a pertinent issue that has little to do with the merits of that year’s offerings in cinema. One year, the “cause” is the Holocaust. A few years later, it’s the Holocaust. Then it’s Gay Is OK Year. Hollywood honored the Troops once since 9/11, then forgot all about them again.

Three Billboards is being pimped to audiences as a consciousness-raising breaker of timely taboos, in the way that the Ang Lee’s saga of forbidden cowboy love, Brokeback Mountain, helped usher homosexuality into the mainstream.

We live in a data-driven society that selects the relevancy of social issues on the basis of their degree of pervasive suction in social media. What the unwarranted critical acclaim for this film seems to be suggesting is that, in the unsettling wake of the Harvey Weinstein debacle and the ensuing, ongoing horror of the #MeToo movement, Hollywood is scrambling for a film that fits the bill for the message: violence against women may not be okay.

The “point” of Three Billboards seems to be that it validates the notion that angry women—especially older, angrier, unsexy ones nobody wants around anymore—are also people. Perhaps?

It’s impossible to tell. The film has a lot of big signs suggesting Deep Messages and Actual Direction, but it is such a convoluted turnpike of unfinished freeway ramps, it manages to go miles out of its way to ultimately end up nowhere .

Not that a film that actually accomplished what this film “apparently” does for women wouldn’t be very appreciated right now. There is a definite, urgent need for a film that succeeds at doing what critics are claiming Three Billboards does.

Most of the women I know all had all had similar jackboot-to-the-gut reactions when Trump won. The first day was a Twilight Zone-ish nightmare-haze of coming to grips with feelings of psyche-crushing betrayal, like we’d all been roofied on election night and woken up duct-taped to an abandoned sofa.

It was a more severe version of a revelation that any middle-aged woman (like moi) has had many times before: we’ve always sort of known that everyone hates women, but we had, once again, underestimated how much by light-years.

It must be said, however, that no way forward is illuminated in Three Billboards.

Frances McDormand will surely get an Oscar for this role, for many of the same reasons that Charlize Theron won hers for Monster—and also far creepier ones. Ms. McDormand went all the way to homelytown to portray the unlovable Mildred, and wrapped her reliably likable mouth around the words “cunt” and the N-word a bunch of times. Her performance will be pronounced brave.

Martin McDonaugh appears to think he’s cleverly traipsing in rare, tragi-comic human emotional territory previously charted by the Coen Brothers (as telegraphed by his misuse of their muse, McDormand). However, the Coen brothers develop believably quirky, flawed-but-human characters and antiheroes, in outrageous but largely true, taken-from-life scenarios.

McDonagh relies on screenwriting tricks, sleights-of-pen, stakes-juicing cheats and all kinds of twisty-turny, action-y shit (in the way recommended by screenwriting manuals). Yet it's too implausible, and moves at a pace too jarring and devoid of meaning and/or plot acceleration to bring the audience along for the ride. A bad dentist from town tries to go all Marathon Man on Mildred with his drill after seeing the billboards. Mildred, from a prone position in a reclining chair, overpowers the dentist and pushes the drill through his finger. When a fire breaks out, Mildred and her son just happen to have TWO massive fire extinguishers in their station wagon—the kind you keep in industrial kitchens with the cone at the end of the spray nozzle. Knives are pulled during domestic scenes for no discernible reason. It’s a rat king of sloppy shortcuts and irrelevant character-development tangents that don’t add up to any coherent dramatic storyline.

In an unforgivable flashback, Mildred remembers her last exchange with her murdered teenage daughter. The rebellious daughter, denied use of the station wagon, shouts, “You know what, I will walk, I will walk. And y’know what? I hope I get raped on the way.”

And Mildred, like no mother ever, retorts: “Yeah? Well, I hope you get raped on the way too!”

Sam Rockwell bears the brunt of this film’s dishonors. Playing William Willoughby, the N-word spewing, deputy with a village idiot haircut, he imports a double-digit IQ from the Don Knotts school of walleyed law enforcement. His over-the-top aggressive role changes abruptly into something far more sensitive toward the end, after a violent event results in his sudden firing but ultimately, his redemption. The transformation of Rockwell’s cop is apparently supposed to be the lynchpin of the social enlightenment this film seems to be getting credit for articulating. Sam Rockwell’s character’s redemption felt gravely, even perilously unearned—a point other critics have also articulated).

If I were a red-state cop, I might be moved, after seeing this film, to remark that McDonagh lacks “the common touch.”

McDonaugh seems more than eager to handle hot button issues, but he fumbles them like a virgin handles the hooks on his first bra: if it doesn’t open right away, he pivots straight to flunking at belt-buckle aptitude.

As far as your contribution to my plight, Mr. McDonagh, I think I speak for a number of Mildreds of the world when I say: it is impolite to throw a starving bitch a rubber bone.

cintra wilson
Frances McDormand
Martin McDonagh
Academy Awards
oscars 2018