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  • Mary Kay McBrayer

LADIES DON'T BEAT THE DAYLIGHTS OUT OF PEOPLE: MILDRED'S COCKTAIL IN THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING


I love it when women get to show their asses in the name of justice. In case you're unfamiliar with the term "show my ass," here's how Urban Dictionary defines it:


 But look, the denotation for "show YOUR ass" is different:

As you can see, the connotation is all in the perspective, but in my experience, it's really the motive for showing one's ass that determines whether it's worth doing. For fun? Meh. Maybe. For vengeance? ABSOLUTELY SHOW THAT ASS.

But I do hate it when women don't get justice because they showed their asses, because they're women. Which is most often the case. If you have seen the trailer for Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, you know where I'm going with this. The premise is that Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), mother of Angela Hayes (a girl who one year ago was raped while dying and then set on fire) wants justice for her daughter, and she's determined to get it by any means necessary. As is often the case when it comes to vendettas, though, someone always thinks the offended party has "gone too far," and in the case of crimes like this, of a young woman walking alone late at night, well, it's real easy to write it off with the age-old question, "What did she expect?"Which we all know is a bullshit and non-rhetorical question, since what anyone expects after a night of partying is simply A Hangover.

Anyway. [dismounts from soapbox]

The thing I like most about Martin McDonagh's movies is his characters, but, full disclosure, I personally have been deeply in love with him since I was in Brit Lit in undergrad and had to read The Pillowman. (I know I spend a lot of time harping about how Javier Bardem IS my celebrity sex list, but it's more of his demeanor and appearance--not that he doesn't have other awesome qualities, I'm sure--but if you gave me his physicality, Martin McDonagh's brain, and Frances McDormand's balls, well. That's my tough guy with heart of gold, right there.) When my friend tagged me in a trailer for Three Billboards, I literally yelped with glee.

I thought, this is gonna be Fargo meets Southern Gothic, but funny. And these are a few of my favorite things.

[SPOILERS START HERE]

As you might know, I'm a woman from the South, and if there's one thing we got honest, it's a sense of righteous justice. I have heard in response to Three Billboards, "But women just don't act that way in the South." Which is a paraphrasing of the Flannery O'Connor quote ("A Circle of Fire"), "Ladies don't beat the daylights out of people."

I beg to differ. And so does, I think this movie.

My second favorite, most redneck-cousin line of the whole movie is in the trailer, when Mildred yells out her car window as she drives by the apathetic and parasitic news reporter: "This doesn't put an end to shit, you fucking retard. This is just the fucking start. Why don’t you put that on your Good Morning Missouri fucking wakeup broadcast, bitch." If that seems crass and harsh, it's because it is, but it's definitely the kind of ass-showing that MY mama would do if I had been raped while dying and the police were, as Mildred says, "too busy torturing black folks to solve actual crimes."  Let's talk about when Mildred lights the police station on fire with a Molotov cocktail. (By the way, that's now on my bucket list: to throw a Molotov cocktail.) Here's my series of questions: would a Southern lady want to show her ass just for the sake of throwing a Molotov cocktail? Maybe. Would she do it? No. Would she want to light a police station on fire? Maybe. Would she do it? No. So far, sure, Mary Flannery: Ladies don't beat the daylights out of people.

But here's the real question: Could she be driven to set a police station on fire with a Molotov cocktail? More directly: what would you do if your daughter was raped while dying, and the police had made no arrests a full year later?

I'm a Southern lady, and I can answer that: I'd come out of this motherfucker blastin'.

And for this reason, for the reason that she's the underdog, the audience sides with Mildred. Everyone loves an underdog success story! Even my very conservative and alpha and kind dad said, "I think I'd like that movie. The authority figures try to intimidate her, but she can't be intimidated. I like that." I like that about her, too. Everyone likes that about Mildred! Even the cast who is supposed to hate her likes her (Willoughby, in particular).

Except for here's the thing: the town thinks she's gone overboard. Willoughby says, "I'd do anything to catch your daughter's killer... (but) I don't think those billboards is very fair!" The dentist tries to pull out one of her teeth without looking at it OR numbing it. Mildred's surviving son even calls the Father over to try to convince her to take down her billboards. But she won't be intimidated. She won't be made to fit into their narrative of propriety. The Father tries to persuade her, saying, "Everyone is with you about Angela. No one is with you about this."

Instead, Mildred delivers this IMPECCABLE monologue comparing priesthood to the Crips and the Bloods, and how no matter where you are, if your group is doing something criminal, you're culpable. Mildred essentially holds the whole world accountable. It's a justifiable rage, even for a Southern woman. And the most Southern thing she says, maybe the whole movie, is at the end of said monologue: "Why don't you finish up your tea, there, Father, and get the fuck out of my kitchen."  It's polite until it isn't. Which is, according to the movie at least, a key marker in Southern hospitality: we will ignore and be polite until we've had enough, until the rage busts through the scrim, which is exactly what happens when Mildred sees those dilapidated billboards at the very opening of the film. She's been so mad for so long, so desperate for hope, and she finally stops internalizing it when she sees those boards, stares at them for a while, and then chews on a fingernail while she's hatching a motherfucking plan. (By the way, you KNOW she's internalized it. The last conversation she had with her daughter was so terrible/ironic: "I hope I get raped on the way!" / "I hope you get raped, too!" YIKES. I mean, we know that neither of them means those things, but YIKES.)

Once she sets up those billboards, though, among Mildred's small, vindictive acts of violence include intimidating Officer Dixon in his "own patrol-house," throwing a Molotov at the police station, drilling a little hole into the dentist, and kicking her son's classmates in the groin. That's it. The rest is calculated. Hell, even those are calculated. And the worst thing she's ever done, according to Angela, is driving drunk with her kids in the car after their father was beating the hell out of her. Which Willoughby, during one of his interrogations, calls a classic case of "his word against hers." Yet Mildred is the one in trouble for putting up the billboards. Of defamation of character. Which she's not doing--she's just telling the facts of what happened and then asking a question.

Mildred's two nemeses, if you hadn't guessed, are Chief Willoughby and Officer Dixon. Not because they're the bad guys, but because they're not good enough at being the good guys. As she tells her former husband, Charlie, just before he pins her by the throat to the wall ("his word against yours," my ass), "The more you keep a case in the public eye, the more likely it is to be solved. It's in all the guidebooks." So she clings to the only hope that she has. It manifests ugly. But it's her hope, and sometimes that's all you get.

But she's not a bad person. Sure, she's ugly and crass and she wears coveralls for no real reason. She has an undercut that's very unattractive. She's mean to her husband's new girlfriend. She's mean to her date for no real reason. She's just mad. And that happens. It even happens to women.  Note: Charlie, Willoughby, Dixon, the pretend-murderer/rapist, and the actual murderer/rapist all are violent. And because it's expected of them, no one says shit to them. Look at the examples:

  1. Charlie gets a "classic his word against yours" situation. Mildred's own kids don't believe her--although, to be fair, her son does step in REAL QUICK, REAL FUCKIN' QUICK with that kitchen knife.

  2. Willoughby gets to show his ass by...

  3. slinging a vial of blood against the wall in the doctor's office with no repercussions. Partly because of his authority. Partly because he's dying and everyone feels sorry for him.

  4. Interrogating Mildred. Illegally detaining her.

  5. Killing himself, which although not the same, still counts. It's not like he hasn't affected anyone with this violence. He affects everyone, actually, including but not limited to Jason Dixon.

  6. After Willoughby does shoot himself in the head, Dixon runs across the street, breaks the glass on the advertising agency's door, pistol whips Red Welby, and then literally throws him out the window.*BONUS: Dixon is also the policeman who "tortures black folks." Which Willoughby defends tongue-in-cheek by saying if you got rid of all the cops with "vaguely racist leanings" you'd have no one left, and those few would "hate the fags."

There are a few lines of dialogue that made me deeply uncomfortable about one third of the way through the film, and that's when Mildred is taken into custody for [something dumb that I can't even recall now.] While she waits on Willoughby to come interrogate her, she says to Dixon, "How's things going in the nigger-torturing business?" to which he replies, "It's persons-of-color torturing business, now. And I didn't torture nobody." It's that kind of ignorance that made my heart sink watching the film the first time, the total missing-of-the-point. It's funny, too, in a VERY dark way. The way that the first season of The Office was funny. Once we get past the undeniable fact that it's going to be horribly offensive, you just have to go with it. That's part of the duality of the characters. They're going to offend you, and the best way to not let it bother you is to laugh at it.

That's what Mildred does in the interrogation scene when Dixon is so proud of himself for not saying a racial slur that he recounts the whole interaction to Chief Willoughby, PROUDLY. He and Mildred have a moment of, "Yikes... that's a dangerous mentality. How the hell did he get in this position of authority?"

Which brings back one of the opening scenes, when Jerome, one of the men posting the original billboards, who is black, confronts Dixon after he recognizes him, spitting, "Why don't you go look at that first billboard, and then we can have ourselves a conversation about the motherfucking environment." At first, the rest of the theater and I all grimaced, the way you do when a person at a clear disadvantage talks to a person of authority in a way that's disrespectful, even--or especially, really--when they deserve to be spoken to in that way. It took a while to sink in, until I realized, Oh, no, Dixon really did that shit. And I started to wonder,  Is this going to be funny? I really was hoping it was going to be funny. But right now, this is too true to be funny. It's too real. It's too... soon. And then I wondered, Is this movie going to make me hate humanity? Is this going to have a happy ending? Or at least a hopeful message?

But I'm not a person who likes to shit on people's art. Not only because that's too simple and immature of an "analysis," if you can call it that, but also because I'm real fucking tired of watching people shit on art. You think it's that cut-and-dry? YOU TRY TO DO SOMETHING IMPORTANT, THEN.

It's not that easy, is it?

And that idea, I think, extends to people--and it sees like that's what the film says, too. You can't discount a person just because they did ONE shitty thing. It's too easy, too simple, and too immature. YOU you can do whatever you want because this is America and you can hate people for no good reason if you want to hate them for no good reason. That's what makes the country beautiful. But that's not the way that I want to live. And by the end, that's not the way that Mildred or Willoughby or even Dixon wants to live--which is what ACTUALLY makes the country beautiful: being able to hate people for no good reason, and not doing it. Even though you can. 

Mildred is the ultimate example of the dark, silver-lined cloud. She may have instigated the conversation with Willoughby that led to him trying to interrogate her in the police station, but when he's in the middle of that asshole line of questioning about how her ex-husband is the one actually paying for the billboards and he coughs up blood in her face, the whole theater gasped along with those onscreen. Her face looks as horrified as his, but rather than say something mean like she did earlier, when he revealed that he had cancer, she stands, and he sits. (Which is a nice inversion of the power dynamic made visual.) He starts to apologize, but she says, "I know. I know, baby," and runs to get help. When someone needs her, Mildred snaps into action. It might take a life-and-death situation to get her there, but if it's not life-and-death, who cares?

Plus, after she shows him that small kindness--or maybe it's directly because he realizes how petty he's being, since coughing up blood is by all accounts VERY serious--Willoughby says as the first-responders cart him out a stretcher, "Let her go." He even writes Mildred her own suicide letter apologizing, predicting that her daughter's killer (though he would have loved to have caught him, himself) might get caught by being sloppy later, and he reveals that he paid for the next month's rent on her billboards. Because he thought it was funny.

It is funny. He wanted them down so bad, but he also really did want to catch her daughter's killer. He even says so in his suicide letter, that paying for those billboards was an act of solidarity, so that no one would bully her later and so that she would know that he really, really did care. She reacts by laughing while she's crying, which is the exact depiction of the tone of this movie.

This kindness might have indirectly inspired Mildred to try to lure Dixon into the office of the station house before she lights it on fire... but she might not have even known he was in there. Either way, she calls the office number twice, just to be sure she won't hurt anyone physically.

Dixon doesn't get his letter from Willoughby till after he throws Welby out the window, unfortunately, but that pay-it-forward kindness affects him, too. After Mildred sets the police station on fire, the kindness from Willoughby is the only thing that makes him rescue the Angela Hayes case file. That kindness is what makes him try to catch Angela Hayes killer in the bar when--just like Willoughby predicted!--he gets sloppy and reveals the plot, Bond-villain style. It's what makes Dixon apologize to Welby when in a dramatic and poetic justice they're sharing a recovery room at the Ebbing hospital. And that apology is what makes Welby bring Dixon his glass of orange juice.

The small kindnesses are really the most hopeful part of the whole story. How lucky is it that James (Peter Dinklage) happens around the corner and puts out the fires on Dixon's FUCKING FACE. How kind is it for him to cover for Mildred to the new police chief. How kind is it for her to indulge him, however temporarily, on the date with her.

And when, on that date, Charlie (John Hawkins) makes fun of James and then offers a half-ass apology for burning down her billboards, WHAT INCREDIBLE, CHRIST-LIKE GRACE does Mildred show when she walks over to them in the fancy restaurant and sets the bottle of wine down on their table rather than bashing them over their stupid hateful heads the way that I and so many other Southern women would prefer to have done. That mind-over-matter method of kindness is Southern. Everyone is full of hate. We know that. But it takes a really big person and stalwart resolve to push it aside.

And all these characters do it. Mildred does it the most, though. She even teams back up with Dixon, the total idiot, because he's paid that kindness forward, too. And on the way to murder a guy who wasn't her daughter's rapist and killer, but was, definitely, someone's rapist and killer, they decide against it. Because, as Mildred once said on the Good Morning Missouri news, "The buck has to stop somewhere."

And speaking of the Good Morning Missouri fucking wakeup broadcast. Damn it, I love that creative swearing. Who would ever think of using "fucking" as an adverb. #goals

But back to the broadcast itself: THIS BITCH. Am I right? The only reason Mildred was ever invited onto the show was because she made a spectacle--and that's exactly what her goal was. She wanted to make a spectacle for the sake of (as she told her exhusband) "keeping the case in the public eye" because she knew that she could get attention that way. Was it defamation? Not exactly. Even Willoughby says the billboards weren't defamation; they were just stating facts. But they're easily-enough misconstrued that the media was all about it.

And another thing about this newscasting bitch. Remember when Willoughby killed himself, and Mildred and her son heard it on the news? Remember how it was directly followed by the question, "Could it have had something to do with these three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri?" Remember how right afterward, Mildred snapped the TV off?

Because listen: stories can be harmful. They usually are. And that seems to be the point of this one: it's much easier and more fun and validating to be harmful than to do good--TRUST ME. IT'S A LOT EASIER AND FUNNER AND MORE VALIDATING. But this movie shows us, for real, that kindness is really fucking important. It's what makes us human. And the sensationalizing of a story should be used only for good, the way, I think, that Mildred does. To prevent "some other girl (from) being butchered right now."

Earlier in the movie, Mildred asked,  "...How come, I wonder... because there ain’t no God, and the whole world’s empty, and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other? I hope not." The movie's telling us to decide. Or maybe even deciding for us, since we have that somewhat peaceful ending of two people who formerly hated each other and had really intense vendettas for each other joined together in the name of vigilante justice, which they then decided (maybe) against.  I think they decided against it. Because Mildred AND Dixon hate the media. They hate their stories are being told by other people! So for that reason, I'm gonna say they're not letting that story be the end. In fact, "This doesn't put an end to shit, you fucking retard. This is just the fucking start. Why don’t you put that on your Good Morning Missouri fucking wakeup broadcast, bitch." Seems like it's calling us to be that kindness. Flip that bug back onto its legs because it can't do it by itself.

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© 2018 by MKM.

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