Accepting her Golden Globe for best actress, Frances McDormand announced her support for the women in Hollywood movement by declaring herself “to be a part of the tectonic shift in our industry’s power structure”. Later that evening, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri went on to win best picture presumably on the back of McDormand’s acting and the feminist message she felt the film portrayed. But is the juxtaposition of Three Billboards within the women in film movement appropriate?
McDormand’s Mildred Hayes as a character is supposed to embody the women’s empowerment movement. She rallies against the men who failed to do their job in service of both her and her daughter and exhibits an outrage towards those men. Her outrage serves as a nationwide catharsis in this tumultuous time. Women, and to some extent men, are yearning for the dethronement of the patriarchy in the Donald Trump and #MeToo era, and Three Billboards serves as a calculated release to capitalize on that momentum.
While reveling in the catharsis of Mildred’s dismantling of the men who let her down, one must not be blinded to the moments in which the film fails to be properly uplifting of women. Frances McDormand is an amazing actor, but even the best actors are limited by the script and direction that they are given. Martin McDonagh as both writer and director intrinsically limits the amount to which Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri can belong to this movement. Between the characterizations of Mildred and the other women in the film, it becomes clear that McDonagh is merely feigning feminism in hopes of riding the shifting paradigm to commercial success. His understanding of women lacks depth. When Mildred is at her strongest, she feels of nothing more than a male protagonist with a pair of breasts; no effort is made to represent female strength. The concept that strong is equivalent to male remains even when the strength is ostensibly being applied to a woman.
Despite the film’s overall flawed nature, some service does need to be offered to Frances McDormand specifically in her portrayal of Mildred Hayes. Mildred is a damaged woman; she was abused by her cop ex-husband but was denied any retribution when the case came down to “he said she said”. Separated from him, her life was dealt another blow by the murder of her daughter. These incidents in relatively quick succession leave the character of Mildred overloaded with pain. There are few moments in the film when this pain is allowed to surface in a believable way. The single strongest scene of the film highlights one of these moments. In the first introduction of the ex-husband, Mildred begins defensive in her interaction with Charlie as he barges into her home. She is quickly forced to surrender her strong façade when he throws her into a wall, grabbing her by the neck. Even after he leaves she is shaken and left to contemplate how she ended up in this situation and how she can cope. Moments like this reflect a depth to Mildred that is unfortunately left unexplored elsewhere.
Even when it comes to Mildred’s strengths, McDonagh isn’t completely oblivious to his leading lady. The film opens with the lone moment in which Mildred’s strength resonates as genuine to her character. The decision to rent the titular billboards are aptly equated to as a chess move by their object of ridicule, Sheriff Willoughby. They reflect an understanding of how others operate and were a calculated decision to force action when other conventions had failed. As the film’s centerpiece, they introduce Mildred as a tactician; she’s someone who manipulates the situation she was dealt to server her purpose. Mildred appears a woman who only acts after careful forethought.
These lofty expectations lead to near immediate disappointment. The first formal complaint against Mildred comes from the town dentist, and in response, Mildred displays none of the tact of the women who brilliantly rented the billboards. Instead she shows up in his office and resorts to spontaneous violence. After calculating a move that would induce action while following the letter of the law, she undermines herself by committing assault, jeopardizing her goals. This impulsivity and aggression is reflective of the masculine ideal of strength; it focuses on reaction instead of action. Violence is seen as a natural progression despite being the underlying cause of strife.
The betrayal of Mildred’s intuition peaks with the climax of the film. The span of a few weeks proving insufficient in the finding of her daughter’s killer, Mildred again succumbs to her anger in a destructive manner. Gone is the woman who used public shaming as a way to encourage action. In her place is a masculine action hero, committing acts of terrorism as a way to cope. This turn of character is nothing more than a male power fantasy. In that moment, any claim to the creation of a strong woman character becomes completely null and void. McDonagh under the guise of women empowerment, created his own personal Rambo.
In contrast to the masculine strength projected by Mildred, all of the other women in the film are weak and contribute nothing to the film. They either are props to be used by the men of the town, or are played as simple for a degrading insult. Even if one were to overlook the masculinization of Mildred as merely a symptom of the systemic misogyny in our society and not a conscious decision, the insulting use of all of the other women can be seen as nothing short of malicious.
Denise is the most squandered of the supporting women in the film. As Mildred’s seemingly only friend, she should have given the viewer an insight into Mildred’s life. Further, as a black woman in rural Missouri, in a city already shown to have a racism problem, her experiences could easily have helped to flush out the struggles with police effectiveness in Ebbing. Instead she’s almost immediately jailed on possession charges as a way of hammering home the concept of Officer Dixon’s arrogance and racist tendencies, neither of which needed the additional support to be understood.
Three of the remaining women in the film all serve as pure comic relief. Dixon’s mother exists only to make a fool of him by her existence. She provides no meaningful dialogue or character development, but allows the characters and viewers alike the opportunity to laugh at Dixon. As a woman she could have acted as a liaison for Mildred’s side to one of her greatest detractors. Instead she is nothing more than an adjective for Dixon: “Lives with his mother”.
While Dixon’s mother could have served a purpose, Red Welby’s Secretary Anne, and Penelope (the current girlfriend of Mildred’s ex-husband) should have never been included as characters without a drastic re-write. They are insultingly simple and completely lack any awareness of their surroundings or of how basic human interaction works. The implication is that both of them seem to get by solely on their attractiveness, and that intelligence is something reserved for the men of Ebbing Missouri.
Given McDonagh’s rendering of the other women of Ebbing pointless, the testosterone infused version of Mildred can only be opposed by the men of the town. This, it turns out, serves as the final nail in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s misogynist coffin. Mildred, despite having every reason to be, isn’t even the hero of her film. That title, for some reason, is reserved for the misogynistic, racist, homophobic Officer Dixon for which Sam Rockwell also won an acting Golden Globe.
Dixon is the only character who goes through any developmental arc. He begins the film a misogynistic, racist, homophobic, lazy police officer and ends it a misogynistic, racist, homophobic, dedicated police officer. After losing his job for assaulting an innocent civilian, he is shocked to learn that for the first time, actions have consequences for white men in rural Missouri (it’s made clear throughout the film that he should have lost his job ten times over at this point). After losing his job, he shows no remorse for his actions, only for their result. Somehow in his mind he equates finally taking a level of ownership for his former job as retribution for throwing someone out a window.
In the end, Mildred’s billboards were moot in purpose as the second most despicable character in the film is awarded the title of hero for catching the lone worse one. By doing his job for the first time, albeit after he lost it, Dixon stakes his claim for the actual lead of the film. Had Mildred been billed as a secondary character, nothing would have changed. The film is Dixon’s, and any claim to a feminist motivation behind the film can only be seen as disingenuous when taking the resolution into consideration.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a case of playing to a national conversation despite lacking the necessary content to support the movement. Martin McDonagh is no more a feminist than any other director, and his most recent outing only receives the accolades it does because of its timing and assumed message on paper. In reality, Mildred lacks the genuineness in her moments of strength to act as a role model, and no other woman is allowed to be even two dimensional let alone three. Instead, this supposed feminist piece is yet another story of a privileged white man momentarily losing his way only to be rewarded for fixing one part of his life despite continuing to be an awful person. Women deserve better than this well-trodden male attempt at feminism.