What’s the worst thing you’ve ever said to your mum in an argument? That you hate her? You hope she dies? You hope you die? For some reason, the daggers thrown in blazing anger can feel like they pass straight through the air, hitting no root of evil because, in your mum, there isn’t one.
But there is something in Mildred Hayes. The steely, brazen lead in Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has been worn by age and pain. And she’s not afraid to let anyone know about it.
Nine months prior, Mildred’s teenage daughter, Angela, was murdered. Specifically, she was ‘raped while dying’, according to the first of three billboards Mildred rents in order to reinvigorate the case. But after mystery, grief and anger settle, little more is unearthed in the film to discover who actually killed Angela Hayes.
While the film isn’t (and doesn’t need to be) a 21st century Twin Peaks revival to give that girl and now this girl an answer – it doesn’t really give this girl anything. It doesn’t give many girls much.
Frances McDormand plays Angela’s mother, the main character and driving force of the film. No praise is overstated for the rumbling hurricane and stone-wall resilience in the actress’ performance. Navigating fools, racists, children, and idiots, Mildred Hayes is a force that no one should be stupid enough to even try and reckon with.
Since the film’s release, McDormand has earned a hefty number of accolades – to soon be followed by an Oscar, if all goes to plan. The film’s female lead is to be praised, as women are somewhat less often seen in the world of brutal grief and all-consuming anger. But despite this progress, McDormand’s force (both in the foundations of her character and skill of her performance) cannot cancel out the treatment of, well, pretty much every other woman in Three Billboards.
You can focus on Mildred, laugh when she bites and pause when she breathes, but out of the corner of your eye it’s hard to miss the difficulty with which writer-director McDonagh deals with other characters. If you’re looking for trouble, start with every un-ironic ‘cunt’ and ‘bitch’ sewn into the tapestry of the script. Without context, I don’t need to elucidate how this could be a problem. But in this case, it’s somewhat essential to the emotional and tonal makeup, contradictory and frankly fucked up, of all those who live and pass through Ebbing, Missouri.
It’s not actually what the women say, nor what is said to them, which is distressing. It’s what they’re lacking. Angela Hayes (played by Kathryn Newton – capable of a much more developed teenager as seen in Big Little Lies), daughter and victim of the story, is only given one flashback scene to come to life. She’s wearing heavy black makeup, and she’s tried to hide that her effortlessly unruly blonde hair is actually anything but. In the final argument with her mother, Angela challenges Mildred, screaming that she hopes she gets raped on her walk home. Mildred agrees.
In the present day, this memory fuels Mildred’s mission to seek justice after a less-than-perfect farewell. This is a mother who loved her daughter deeply, a woman now tainted by brittle anger in her grief. But in the process, Angela is reduced to a lightweight image of superficiality and vulgarity, in the way and on her way to the end of her life. There might even be a split-second where you’re inclined to agree with Mildred. Without refocusing the story, it wouldn’t have taken much to give Angela a slight break, to bring her out of Mildred’s almighty shadow. Another sentence could instill doubt, puff out her persona with a bit more substance than her throwback early Avril Lavigne looks.
Youth is repeatedly dismissed, young women in particular. After Angela, there is Penelope (Samara Weaving) — the new girlfriend of Mildred’s ex-husband, who ticks all the boxes: young, dumb, pretty, and most importantly blissfully unaware and exempt from any retaliation herself. It’s frustrating that in a film so full of contradictions, self-aware gross exaggerations and ambiguous redemption, some things remain so painstakingly stupid. Where other characters, like Sam Rockwell’s police officer Dixon, manifest cartoonish stupidity which is shaped and questioned by the end, Penelope goes out as she came in. A pretty face, a hopeful, but flimsy and annoying one at that. She’s only trying to help.
Other women in the background also have very little agency. Instead of just showing face and filling space, they speak and do enough to be noticed, but without ever being given enough to back up the case for “Strong Women” as an immutable theme in this film. The news reporter is shunned and dismissed by Mildred, fulfilling the stereotype of the female news anchor spewing words without really saying them. Mildred’s best friend is given very little screen time, despite being treated with similar levels of injustice by the same forces that taunt Mildred.
Somewhere between Mildred and the forgotten women in the background, there is Anne. Anne, played by frequent McDonagh collaborator Abbie Cornish, is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson)’s wife. Playground cock jokes and illogical small talk weave their short-lived marriage together, questionable from start to end. Anne could have become another flag-waver for grief and the resilience to seek justice, but along the way she seems to have got lost — in a bad script, a bad performance and a really confusing accent. Cornish seems to have been given so little consideration as to her emotional credibility, or any relevance for her character next to McDormand’s Mildred. When Anne finally meets Mildred in the shop, suspense gives way to emptiness. Anne’s grief isn’t quiet like Mildred’s stern silence — it just feels empty, and there is no sorrow in her eyes.
It feels like Cornish is acting in a different film to everyone else, where the only extreme vein to her performance is the dull incredulity and incapacity to engage with anything around her. Different to Mildred’s barriers of bitterness, Anne’s bubblewrapped self-awareness feels like she reads sadness as a concept but hasn’t quite realised how to experience it yet.
Anne is treated with the same contempt by McDonagh as Dixon in his lowest and most comical moments, but she is mostly like Penelope, like Angela, and like the other women who aren’t Mildred. She’s belittled with a lack of characterisation, and alienated by the embarrassing, immature pretence she has been given.
When remembering Three Billboards, I remember the unforgiving strength of Mildred. I remember the debates over Dixon, over his racism, his stupidity and his redemption. It’s a deliberately controversial film that throws incredibly bold ideas and at times gross lines in order to serve the grotesque. But where opposing forces and raging arguments fuel the film’s potential interest and ultimate success, its disregard for most women leaves a bitter taste. In a world which demands more female characters, how is it that in this one, making room for one of the greatest doesn’t exempt the rehashing of some of the worst?
Maybe it’s because her daughter was treated so badly. Maybe it’s because her husband left her, or because her best friend didn’t get the justice she deserved either. But I don’t think it’s Mildred’s fault. I hope it’s no one’s deliberate fault that such a well-loved film seems to dislike all the women who aren’t Mildred. But when Martin McDonagh didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Director this year, I couldn’t help but believe in karma just a little bit more.
Originally published on Into the Fold