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Vigilantism and the Law in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Author: Joy McEntee (University of Adelaide)

  • Vigilantism and the Law in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

    Feature Article

    Vigilantism and the Law in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

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McEntee, J., (2021) “Vigilantism and the Law in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"”, Film Criticism 45(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.977

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14 Oct 2021
Peer Reviewed

Introduction

Denise: “You go, girl! You go fuck those cops up!”1

Revenge is the justice of the marginalised, of those whom the law excludes. It is a challenge to the law: to paraphrase Francis Bacon, revenge puts the law out of office.2 In rape-revenge films from the 1970s such as I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978) and Ms .45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981), women’s calls for justice for the crimes that typically beset them, including sexual crimes, remained outside the law, outside of the reach of justice, in the realm of revenge and vigilante action. This characterisation of feminism as vengeful is of course reductive and androcentric, but what if we take vigilante action seriously, as a symptom of the unmet demand for justice? It is in this light that the 1970s rape-revenge films became Second Wave feminist texts. What is disturbing is that by 2017, when Martin McDonagh released Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri very little seemed to have changed. Three Billboards is about Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand) frustration with the law and her vigilante action in the wake of rape, which puts her in direct competition with the representatives of the law: Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). As the film is all about rape and vigilante action, it bears comparison with films in the rape-revenge genre. Carol Clover has identified this as a subset of horror, although Jacinda Read asserts that rape-revenge is, rather, a narrative pattern that crosses multiple genres, including the Western.3 Writing in 2000, Read opined that rape-revenge had had its day.4 However, as Claire Henry wrote in 2010 and 2014, and Alexandra Nicholas-Heller demonstrated in 2011, it was still a live tradition then.5 The continued relevance of the genre this is also suggested by the remakes of 1970s rape-revenge films and their sequels: The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972) and The Last House on the Left (Dennis Iliadis, 2009); I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978) and I Spit on Your Grave (Steven R. Monroe, 2010); I Spit on Your Grave 2 (Steven R. Monroe, 2013) and I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance is Mine (R. D. Braunstein, 2015). I examine Three Billboards’ vengeful gender politics in the generic context of rape-revenge. Whereas previous commentators have analysed Martin McDonagh’s work with hypermasculinity, I will be examining what McDonagh does in connecting femininity with grief, rage and violence.6

Many of the twenty-first century rape-revenge films have it both ways—using vigilante action to mount spectacular scenes for the visceral delectation of their audiences, but also representing revenge as destructive, disproportionate and monstrous. Similarly, it seems to me that McDonagh has it both ways: extra-legal violence—on the part of both Mildred and Dixon—offers spectacular cinematic set pieces, but the audience may be punished for enjoying them. Mildred’s vindictiveness is both justified and represented as misguided, grotesque, and destructive, if not actually disproportionate. In a pattern described by Molly Ferguson, McDonagh first advances, and then retracts, vindications of vengeance and offers of redemption for key characters including Mildred and Dixon, but finally Mildred’s critique of the law as inadequate and inept is allowed to stand.7 He also has it both ways with regard to genre: cinematic revenge genres including rape-revenge and maternal revenge are at once invoked and subverted. Finally, Three Billboards has it both ways politically: it is a film that wants to have both a qualified justification for “feminist direct action,” but undercuts this justification by suggesting that in adopting vigilante tactics, Mildred has to do two things: unsex herself, and collude with a male chaperone. This article extends the question Claire Henry asks of rape-revenge remakes in Revisionist Rape-Revenge: “Is rape-revenge not (or no longer) a feminist genre?”8

Synopsis

To begin with a synopsis: Three Billboards opens with a vista of three dilapidated billboards being contemplated by a woman we learn to be Mildred Hayes. Mildred’s daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), has been raped and murdered seven months before the action opens, but the police have made no progress in the case. They are represented by the Willoughby, who is admirable but who has exhausted his resources, and Dixon, who is a racist, homophobic, alcoholic Mama’s boy. In her frustration, Mildred rents the billboards from the local advertising agent, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), and plasters them with three signs: “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests,” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” Before their transformation, the billboards are softly weathered and blend in with the misty, bucolic landscape. One bears a picture of a plump and smiling baby. After their transformation, they become testaments to grief cathected into rage. The lettering is metres tall and black; the background is scarlet. They punctuate and contrast the lush green of the surrounding countryside.

Figure 1:
Figure 1: The titular billboards blend into the bucolic landscape.
Figure 2:
Figure 2: A long faded memory of a smiling baby.
Figure 3:
Figure 3: The billboards are transformed.
Figure 4.
Figure 4. Mildred’s billboards punctuate and outrage the landscape.

Mildred’s friend Denise (Amanda Warren) supports her, but the billboards are inflammatory and are read that way by Dixon and the rest of the town of Ebbing, particularly as Willoughby is dying of cancer, a fact that is known to everyone including Mildred. The billboards, which, as the title and the diegesis tell us are well outside the town, denote Mildred’s outsider status in terms of the community. Willoughby attempts to reason with her, but she is unmoved either by his plight, or by appeals to the reasonable limitations of justice in consideration of human and civil rights. She shares with him her misandrist vision of recording the DNA of all boy babies at birth, and then keeping a register against which all crimes can be cross checked. Transgressions would be punishable by death. Mildred is cast as Willoughby’s pitiless persecutor. Her family—her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and her abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) also disapprove. Charlie, who is an ex-cop, even attempts to assault Mildred. The only reason he does not follow through is because Robbie intervenes with a knife. Three Billboards invokes domestic violence as well as rape as a problem of patriarchy.

Figure 5: Police harassment and Mildred’s confrontational response.
https://youtu.be/NF2wDxMow8s

A series of harassments on the part of the Dixon and the townspeople follow, with Mildred stubbornly holding her own. These present opportunities for serious ethical commentary—for example Mildred lectures the local priest Father Montgomery (Nick Searcy) on the joint culpability of groups of men for crimes like child sex abuse. They also present opportunities for the comedic: a sadistic dentist (Jerry Winsett) takes it into his head to attempt to torture her in the chair, but she turns his drill on him and punctures his thumbnail. Most of all, they bring opportunities for Mildred to oppose the law. Willoughby brings her in for questioning over the assault on the dentist, and during this interview he accidentally coughs blood in her face. She responds compassionately, but he collapses. Rather than face a lingering death, he plans an idyllic day with his family and then shoots himself. He leaves suicide notes for his wife, for Dixon and for Mildred. In Mildred’s, he alleviates her of responsibility for his death and explains his decision to secretly pay for rental on her billboards as a kind of joke on her, and also to keep attention on the murder, so that some kind of break may occur in the case. Dixon responds to Willoughby’s death with grief and rage, beating Welby and throwing him out of an upper storey window. Unfortunately for him, he does this in front of the new black police chief—Abercrombie (Clarke Peters)—whom Dixon disrespects and who immediately fires him. A menacing stranger (“crop-haired guy” –Brendon Sexton III) calls at the giftshop at which Mildred works, threatening her and hinting that he may have been Angela’s rapist.

Figure 6:
Figure 6: Arson destroys Mildred’s billboards.

An arsonist attacks Mildred’s billboards. She mounts a retaliatory Molotov cocktail attack on the police station. Unbeknownst to her, Dixon is inside reading his letter from Willoughby. It counsels Dixon to act from love, rather than hate, because from love come thought and calm, which make for good detection. Its transformational effect is seen in the fact that, as he escapes through the flames, Dixon retrieves the Angela Hayes casefile. Mildred is aghast when she sees that she has hurt someone, but enlists the help of James (Peter Dinklage), who provides her with an alibi in exchange for a dinner date. Dixon suffers severe burns and is hospitalized in the same ward as Welby, to whom he apologizes, and by whom he is forgiven.

Figure 7: Mildred firebombs the police station.
https://youtu.be/18GH6wnBM34

Jerome (Darrell Britt-Gibson), a billboard hanger, brings Mildred new copies of her billboards’ messages, so she sets about restoring them with the help of Robbie, James, Jerome and Denise—a new community of the marginalized in Ebbing: its black and “midget” citizens. Mildred goes on her date with James, but she treats him abominably, and he leaves. During that date, Mildred learns that it was Charlie, not the police, who was responsible for the arson attack on her billboards. It is also during this conversation that she hears the homily “anger begets greater anger” from Charlie’s girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving). Mildred advances on Charlie with a bottle held like a weapon, but apparently decides to relent, and invites Charlie and Penelope to finish the wine, admonishing Charlie to treat Penelope well. She is apparently in a forgiving mood—but she has not forgotten Charlie’s domestic abuse.

Meanwhile Dixon discovers something. He goes to a local bar, where he overhears the “crop haired guy” bragging about having participated in a rape and murder resembling Angela’s. Dixon goes into detective mode. He deliberately provokes a fight in order to collect DNA samples. However, Abercrombie tells him that the police still cannot act: the DNA is not a match to Angela’s rape—or any known crime in the US. Dixon remains convinced that the man is a rapist, and he and Mildred set out on a road trip to find him, taking a shot gun along. Mildred confesses to firebombing the police station. Dixon apparently forgives her. Exactly what they plan to do when they find the suspected rapist is unclear; they agree they will decide along the way, and that is how the drama closes.

Three Billboards and the rape-revenge genre

Three Billboards is all about vigilante action consequent on rape, but generically, it must be distinguished from other rape-revenge dramas. Three Billboards does not adopt the two-part structure Henry says defines rape-revenge, in that it depicts neither the rape, nor the ultimate revenge.9 Rather, it concerns itself with the interval between them, and with the escalation of minor retaliatory incidents—with the development of a vengeful cast of mind on the part of Mildred and Dixon. Henry’s remarks on this point are interesting:

Conveying the horror of rape is crucial in rape-revenge films because it motivates and attempts to justify the protagonist’s brutal acts of revenge in the later scenes. The failure to either induce or convey the horror of rape is both a generic and feminist political failure.10

Unlike I Spit on Your Grave or The Last House on the Left (either originals or remakes) and unlike Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002), Three Billboards does not use either rape or revenge as a pretext for graphic, prolonged scenes of violence. Angela’s rape and murder occur off screen before the drama opens, and our exposure to her charred body is only via a forensic photo which is seen briefly. Nor is the violence Mildred and Dixon might perpetrate at the end of the drama shown. In this way Three Billboards is a singularly quietist revenge drama, remarkable for its restraint. Unlike the Kill Bill films (Kill Bill Vol. 1, Quentin Tarantino, 2003; Kill Bill Vol. 2, Quentin Tarantino, 2004), Three Billboards does not use revenge as a pretext for extended action. This is a notable contrast to McDonagh’s male-centred Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, 2012). Does Three Billboards, then, represent, as Henry suggests, a feminist political failure? To be sure, there is vengeful violence in Three Billboards. For example, Mildred drills the dentist’s thumbnail and fire-bombs the police station, but these moments punctuate rather than dominate the narrative. The difference between these acts is also marked. As Nicolas Evans remarks, McDonagh’s plays contain both cartoonish violence, like the thumbnail drilling, and other, more intensely affecting moments of disruption, like the fire-bombing, so that “aggression is made complicated by his dual use of absurd and serious violence, which he uses in order to satirise the ambiguity of artistic representations.”11 As he says, “McDonagh employs spectacle in his work with the specific intent of making audiences uncomfortable, shocking them out of complacency and often raising questions about the validity or appropriateness of violence itself.”12 Mildred’s firebombing the police station may be “justified” by her mistaken belief that the police have set fire to her billboards, but her setting out the Dixon to seek out a random rapist is another matter. If Angela’s rape remains unseen, Mildred’s revenge can appear to be excessive. In working against generic patterns in this way, McDonagh may be punishing the audience for its own bloodlust as conditioned by previous generic experiences and by previous encounters with McDonagh’s work.13 As Evans points out, Seven Psychopaths installs just such a blood thirsty audience member in the diegesis in Billy (Sam Rockwell), and in that film, McDonagh gives the audience the shootout the first half has prepared for.14 Three Billboards, then, may be a correction, but there is still the disturbing suggestion that those who would mete out violence are propelled by generic expectations, that they, like Billy, are “unable to distinguish between representation and reality.”15 According to Evans, in considering McDonagh’s violence, we need to “move beyond questioning whether the violence on stage is morally either good or bad. Instead, his use of violence reveals the constructedness of form and representation by increasing audiences’ awareness of conventions and expectations.”16 In Three Billboards, McDonagh may not only be questioning the ethics of revenge—whether it is morally good or bad—but also invoking and subverting generic tropes of revenge drama to render his audience self-conscious about their enjoyment of its spectacularly violent delights. Laura Eldred says, “spectators are implicitly the object of attack” in McDonagh’s dramas.17 It is therefore interesting question is whether the audience is punished for its complicity with Mildred’s revenge project. On balance, I suspect not. The audience is not invited to judge whether it is good or bad, but to question of its investment in the process and outcome of vengeful action based on other generic experiences including those of rape-revenge. It is in the problematisation of spectatorial expectations and investments that McDonagh appears to be interested, rather than in feminist politics.

The Western

Beside rape-revenge generic contender for Three Billboards is the Western. Frances McDormand has said that she took her inspiration from John Wayne in John Ford movies, modelling the way she moved on him.18 Certainly, this is visible in the way she swaggers across the main street toward Welby’s advertising agency. This first gesture in her going to war is lovingly captured in slow-motion, her silhouetted diffused through a glass door. Her approach is accompanied by a swelling score. The cinematography and the soundtrack valorize her going to war.

Figure 8: Mildred goes to war.
https://youtu.be/TJV6PbNgmuY

Sam Rockwell also modelled himself on the Lee Marvin character from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962).19 What is missing from this comparison, however, is an equivalent role for the James Stewart character, Ranse Stoddard. Unlike Stoddard, Three Billboards’ Willoughby is not rescued from lawlessness by unlawful action, as Stoddard is by Tom Doniphan (John Wayne). Nor does he survive the encounter between lawlessness and the law, or succeed in imposing lawfulness on the town. Nor does Mildred’s revenge narrative follow the typical pattern of Western rape-revenge narratives as laid out by Will Wright and Read, in that we do not see her revenge for Angela’s rape, and she is not reinserted into the community.20 What is reproduced is from Western in Three Billboards is the general uselessness of the law necessitating the avenger taking the law into their own hands.

The Law in Rape-Revenge

The law in rape-revenge is also modelled as useless.21 In the original The Last House on the Left, the representatives of the law are egregious fumblers and broadly caricatured—not unlike Dixon before his reading of Willoughby’s letter. In the remake of The Last House on the Left, the law is tantalizingly out of reach during the initial assault and absent at the film’s closure, so that neither the rape nor the revenge is contained by the law. In the original I Spit on your Grave, the law is nowhere to be seen. In the remake, the sheriff is one of the rapists. In the sequel I Spit on Your Grave 2 the law conspicuously lets the rape victim down, so that she is turned over to her rapists again. Ultimately, the policeman allows the avenger, who has then committed grisly murders with torture, to walk away. In I Spit on Your Grave III, the avenger plays a cat and mouse game with the law, actively competing with it. So in rape-revenge, the unavailability, incompetence or corruption of the law is a necessary precondition for vigilantism. In contemporary rape-revenge films, there is an escalation in the competition between vigilante action and the law, so that revenge directly puts the law out of office.

An important note needs to be made here about the genre’s definition in one of the foundational critical texts: Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws. Clover draws a contrast between the original I Spit on Your Grave, a drama in which the law is irrelevant, with The Accused (Jonathan Kaplan, 1988), a drama in which the legal system works. Indeed, in The Accused the legal system becomes “the hero of the piece,” albeit in qualified ways that ironically marginalize the female rape victim (including privileging the gaze of the male witness to the assault).22 I have reservations about Clover’s inclusion of The Accused in the category rape-revenge, however. I would exclude it, as the case is actually brought to court, and justice is not meted out by the victim taking matters into her own hands, nor by a proxy avenger. Rather, the rape survivor is represented by a female attorney. The Accused is a courtroom drama rather than a rape-revenge drama. By definition, revenge is that which wrests control back from the law. Revenge comes into play outside the courtroom. The Accused does not qualify. Three Billboards, in which the rape case can find no purchase in the legal system, is much closer to the mark. Officers of the law are all useless to Mildred. Paralysing grief or vigilante action are all that remain open to her.

Here McDonagh has it both ways. Mildred’s recourse to vigilante action is understandable, but it is interrogated. Mildred’s heartless pursuit of Willoughby, whom she knows to be dying, offers a critique of her obsession with justice. However, she is not as conspicuously punished for taking retributive action, as other contemporary feminine avengers are. For example, the titular character in Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, 2009), ends up being bludgeoned to death, despite having forgiven her rapist. Dixon is punished for his unprovoked violence, and finds a measure of grace through his suffering, and Welby’s forgiveness. However, he is still bringing his shotgun along on his road trip with Mildred. While the ending remains open, they are going hunting—if not Angela’s rapist, then somebody’s rapist. Dixon and Mildred’s final road trip recasts of vigilante so it is no longer a personal matter between Mildred and Angela’s rapist, but more generalizable and abstract. This is exactly the same manoeuvre as is made by the criminal law of the state in taking the prerogative to punish away from the directly aggrieved. It is in this that Mildred and Dixon put the law out of office. And it is notable that Dixon can only take this step in pursuing justice after he has ceased to be a policeman and finally turned his badge over to Abercrombie. The law is not only outfaced, it is critiqued. This ending undoes Chief Willoughby’s well-reasoned appeal to the civil rights of all the little boy babies born, whom Mildred would like to DNA test on the presumptive basis that any boy baby may turn out to be a rapist. While retributive violence is not definitely the result of their journey, it is a possibility. How do we respond to Mildred and Dixon’s “deciding as they go along” whether to use the shotgun? Any enjoyment of retributive violence, or any definite moral opprobrium the audience might have attached to it, are withheld. Again, McDonagh has it both ways, suspending the audience’s expectations as conditioned by exposure to established genres and/or conventional morality. The audience will neither get the big payoff of conventional revenge dramas, nor the salve of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Forgiveness

McDonagh gestures towards forgiveness at various points in the drama—Welby forgives Dixon; Mildred forgives Charlie; Dixon forgives Mildred. However, revenge is not straightforwardly disavowed. As Grace Chiou observes, the bookmark homily “anger begets greater anger” is placed in the mouth of the Three Billboard’s notable fool.23 Bernard Beck’s reading of the open ending is simply inaccurate. He asserts

after a while [Dixon and Mildred] stop and reflect. She has let go of the rage that has driven her struggle for the whole movie. The intense drive has spent itself. They turn for home and the resumption of ordinary life, with all its burdens and possibilities. This purest of revenge scenarios has been diverted into a mature confirmation of the ultimate correctness of endurance and forgiveness. What has become of the tough, remorseless energy of the frontier? It has given way to thoughtfulness and provided us with a lesson we need to learn again in this intemperate historical moment.24

There is no suggestion in the film that Mildred and Dixon turn around. Rather, they travel onward. Contra Beck, Caroline Fernelius identifies Ebbing as a place rendered lawless by the codes of the frontier: it is a place that ultimately operates “in the absence of God, of state, of justice.”25 It exhibits “the irrevocable instability of a town caught between … the promised order of Western civilization and the threat of chaos that underlies all manmade entities, including notions of justice.”26 She points out the general powerlessness of Willoughby, not only in the face of Angela’s rape and murder, but also in the face of Mildred’s outrages of community codes. As she observes,

Mildred’s version of asserting order … assumes essential incompetence at the institutional level and relies upon extra-legal brute force. The mother’s iteration of justice might read as primitive, but Ebbing is presented as a disorderly place in which one lacks options … When the holy trinity of institutions—the church, the state, and marriage—proves incapable of delivering more palatable versions of redemption, the film suggests that justice must instead be seized forcefully.27

Maternal Rape-Revenge

As Fernelius says, it is “the mother’s iteration of justice” that Three Billboards privileges. Maternity has a heritage in rape-revenge, and as Read writes, the law is irrelevant in this tradition. 28 Maternal revenge narratives that they do not hold up legal solutions either for rape or revenge. As Read outlines, these dramas are particularly interesting in their modelling of vengeful motivation, and this inflects their modelling of feminist justice:

That it is maternal guilt rather than maternal love that drives these women to commit acts of revenge suggests that the aim of these films is not simply to contain the feminist politics of the female rape-revenge cycle, but to effect a dual process of critique and co-option. In constructing the maternal avenger not as morally justified but as guilty of neglecting her maternal responsibilities, the films are able to lay the blame for rape on the transformations brought about by second-wave feminism, while simultaneously constructing an apparently feminist justification (rape prevention) for women’s return to the home.29

I suggest that McDonagh’s Three Billboards similarly both co-opts and critiques revenge, in that the audience is invited to admire Mildred’s recalcitrance, her swaggering style, and the occasionally spectacular violence that results, and to condemn her because she, like one of Read’s maternal avengers, is guilty of maternal neglect.30 Her guilt arises from her last interaction with Angela. The two had a dispute about the family car, and Mildred instructed Angela to walk home, prophetically wishing rape upon her. Like one of Read’s maternal avengers, Mildred is guilty of maternal neglect. As Jordan Kisner observes, there’s nothing to suggest she was a good mother in the first place.31 Certainly, as Mildred grows more proficient in expressing her rage through crotch kickings and hurling Molotov cocktails, she becomes less proficient as a mother towards her son Robbie. However, unlike Read’s avengers, the connection between this neglect and feminism is initially unclear. Her “toughening up” her image, or her “uglification”32 do not occur until after what McDormand calls her “radicalization” via her frustration with the law rather than in direct response to the initial rape.33 Where Read’s maternal avengers are distracted by the pressures of work outside the home, that does not appear to be the case for Mildred. However, Mildred’s is precisely not a journey towards redemption or absolution, as Henry implies the maternal revenge trajectory would require.34 When offered the apparent miracle of the deer who may represent her daughter’s reincarnation, she turns away from the possibility that God has come into the world and offered her a consoling vision. Her project does not return her to motherhood or towards the home. In fact, it drives her away from her remaining child. Unlike other maternal avengers, she is not re-interpolated by patriarchal containment structures like those of the nuclear family at the end of the drama.35

Figure 9: The miracle of the deer.
https://youtu.be/jPg6pwTg0n0

The narrative of Three Billboards departs from the schema for made-for-TV trauma dramas and maternal revenge narratives laid out by Read at the point at which the victims take matters into their own hands. According to the schema, this should then be followed by the victims “joining a self-help group,”36 which I suppose could be constituted by Mildred and Dixon. Together, the victims become better able to cope with trauma, and “having an impact on established institutions,” paving the way for normality to be restored.37 The impact of Mildred’s activities on the established institutions of the law is limited; after Sherriff Willoughby’s suicide he is replaced by another officer of the law, Abercrombie, whose hands are equally tied. The most Mildred manages to do is suborn Dixon, a police officer who had already been rejected by the institution. Mildred’s journey over the frontier of Ebbing is precisely a movement away from the institutions she has had no success in changing. Three Billboards, therefore, remodels the generic patterns Read and Henry describe for maternal avengers.

Masculinist Revenge

It is interesting that McDonagh sees fit to give the maternal avenger a masculine chaperone—revenge being properly masculine business, according to Read.38 This may reproduce the situation of privileging the masculine view that was previously discussed in relation to The Accused. However, Three Billboards needs to be distinguished from masculinist revenge films such as Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974) and The Punisher (Jonathan Hensleigh, 2004) or even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night trilogy (Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan, 2005; The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan, 2008; The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan, 2012) in which vigilantes become heroic “law and order” figures who either arrive at an accommodation with the law (as in Death Wish) or operate on its behalf, as in The Punisher or the Dark Knight franchise. In the fact that male avengers become proxies for the law, rather than direct competitors, as in rape-revenge, there appears to be a gendered “double standard” in revenge films. Sudden Impact (Clint Eastwood, 1983) might be interestingly compared with Three Billboards in that Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is seduced away from the law to act as a proxy avenger who finished a vengeful project Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke) begins, and allows her to walk away from the legal consequences. Spencer literally seduces Callahan away from the law. Similarly, Dixon to abandons the law for the sake of Mildred, but without the romance. Rather than reproducing the pattern in which masculine avengers act as proxies for feminine victims, the duo of Mildred and Dixon is a classic “buddy” pseudo-couple that is post-gender in many ways. They are drawn together by their distance from all social norms, free from desire, but driven by need. They are engaged in an activity neither could have concocted alone. And like John Wayne at the end of The Searchers, there is nowhere for them to go but out—beyond the Ebbing community that Mildred is already outside, and beyond the reach of the law.

The Patriarchy’s Worst Fears

Read writes of maternal rape-revenge dramas that they enter a complex negotiation with feminism, which is “simultaneously appropriated and rejected, popularized and subject to backlash.”39 Following Read, Henry writes that “In the 1980s and 1990s proxy maternal avenger films, the maternal layer added a new right ideology of family values into the genre and diverted the subversive feminist politics seen in other rape-revenge.”40 Jonathan Murray asserts that Three Billboards manages something different:

What seemingly starts as a personal vendetta against Willoughby swiftly evolves into a more far-reaching rejection of patriarchal authority and instruction of any kind … Just as impressive as the style and scale of Mildred’s feminist rage, however, are the ways in which Three Billboards avoids reducing her to a one-dimensional sloganeering symbol, a microwavable portion of heavily processed #MeToo artificial flavorings.41

Mildred does, indeed, challenge patriarchal authority of any kind, including that of religion and the law, with her stinging condemnation of the priesthood and her taunting of the police in general about issues including racism and its uselessness when it comes to rape and domestic violence. Some of Mildred’s positions are extreme—her plan to DNA test all boy babies born, for example—but the drama gives us ample scope to understand the sources of her grief and rage—particularly through Carter Burwell’s plangent musical score and through set-piece speeches—to Willoughby, to the priest, to the deer. In terms of Mildred’s extremity, there is her outfit. She wears a mechanic’s boilersuit and particularly uncompromising hiking boots throughout. At the same time she rents to billboards she shaves her hair into a short undercut, and wears it scrunched into a little knot, sometimes swathed in a bandana. This is her war costume. It is the uniform of a radical feminist and a survivor rather than a victim. Mildred is a fighter not a whiner. McDonagh also dignifies Mildred by casting Frances McDormand, known for her tough-but-admirable performances in Blood Simple (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1984)—as the survivor of both a bad husband and the hitman he hires—and Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen 1996)—as the dogged (and pregnant) Marge Gunderson. McDormand-as-Mildred enacts this tough-but-admirable persona throughout, and her performances won her Academy, SAG, BAFTA, Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards for best actress. However, there are still disturbing aspects to her taking power. She does shift out of grief and into rage as the drama progresses; she does move further and further outside the orbit of acceptable conduct as her feud with the law, and with Ebbing, escalates from billboards to attacking dentists to fire-bombing the police station to setting out to hunt rapists. She uses and abuses James most shamefully. She may be another of what Eldred describes as McDonagh’s uncomfortably sympathetic but potentially amoral monsters.42 Through Frances-McDonagh-as-Mildred McDonagh appears to give new life to the feminist politics of revenge, although he withholds full approbation. Mildred is a woman who might, with some justification, have come to hate men. She represents the patriarchy’s worst fears. Admirable as she is, she is also potentially monstrous.

Unsexing Mildred

And there are other factors that mitigate the “feminism” of McDonagh’s message. While Three Billboards is all about the ways young women are vulnerable in a patriarchal society, Mildred is far from feminine. Her status as a difficult woman is signaled by her uncompromising hairdo and mannish dungarees.

Figure 10:
Figure 10: Mildred before her radicalization.
Figure 11:
Figure 11: Mildred toughens up and unsexes herself.

In this toughening up of Mildred, one of the things that becomes questionable is whether McDonagh really has turned away from his meditation on hyper-masculine violence to focus on femininity. McDormand has said she really played Mildred like a man: “For once, we don’t have to show the female side or the light side or the nurturing, mothering side. We both said, “[expletive] that, we’re doing something different this time.”43 Three Billboards may be a “corrective” to McDonagh’s male-centred Seven Psychopaths, but it may not correct its gender politics as thoroughly as it would initially appear to do. This is underscored by the importance of Dixon as played by Sam Rockwell, who also played Billy in Seven Psychopaths. If Mildred is the star of the show, Dixon, as Three Billboards develops, becomes at least as important as Willoughby and more complex. He is a racist buffoon and a mama’s boy, but he is also endearing. An example of the complexity of his role is seen in the aftermath of Willoughby’s suicide. First, he is comically oblivious, listening to a cheerful tune on his earbuds; then after he is interrupted and learns the news, he apparently faints in shock and winds up sobbing in the arms of another officer; then he sets off across the street to beat up Welby, whose billboards he blames for Willoughby’s death. The long, continuous tracking shot in which this sequence is filmed is one of Three Billboards’ tour-de-force moments. In terms of cinematic spectacle, Dixon’s beating Welby is given equal billing with Mildred’s fire-bombing the police station, or her valiant attempts to extinguish the flaming billboards. If Frances McDormand is given a great part, so is Sam Rockwell, and he won Academy, SAG, Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards for best supporting actor. By the end, Dixon becomes almost as important as Mildred. Feminist revenge for rape, it seems, cannot be accomplished by a woman alone in Three Billboards. Mildred needs Dixon; Frances McDormand needs Sam Rockwell.

Figure 12: Dixon beats Welby.
https://youtu.be/Uw1BmgI8r7c

Redemption

Figure 13:
Figure 13: Mildred reproaches Dixon for his racism and his abuse of police power.
https://youtu.be/oxcFeqyCaU8

One of the important points to note here is that Dixon’s racism, which has been a cornerstone of his character, is not addressed by the film’s ending, so there may be unresolved discomfort about his apparent redemption through his co-option to Mildred’s cause. Murray asserts that “Three Billboards’s narrative is determined to end on a note of possible redemption for its two central characters.”44 However, McDonagh denies it is a redemption at all, although reading Willoughby’s letter does seem to make Dixon calmer and more methodical as a detective.45 But even this is not to be taken as an endorsement, if one considers the rather sinister distinctions drawn between policing and detection by the torturer Tupolski in McDonagh’s play The Pillowman.46 Detection has to do with the processes of cunning rather than with securing justice. And Dixon’s motivations in hunting down the “crop haired guy” may have as much to do with relieving boredom as with anything else. Dixon is not then redeemed, as much as given an opportunity to exercise his talent for violence, hitherto turned on Ebbing’s black citizens and on bystanders like Welby, in relation to a new cause. At the end of the drama, he has not turned his back on retributive violence. When he goes to meet Mildred, he takes his shotgun with him. And unlike Mildred, he lacks even her putative personal investment. “He, unlike she, conspicuously lacks the material to justify his exertions.”47 However, she, unlike he, conspicuously lacks the means to determine whom to hunt. The pseudo-couple becomes an indivisible unit. As in Sudden Impact, feminist rape revenge is only achievable with male facilitation.

Figure 14: Mildred and Dixon go hunting together at the film’s conclusion.
https://youtu.be/K0sTLPffbEo

Conclusion

Three Billboards continues McDonagh’s career-long critique of the law as inadequate, and rough justice as an attractive, if problematic, alternative.48 He first advances, and then retracts, vindications of the law. He does the same with vengeance, and with feminism. Like the other isms his work handles (and Three Billboards has been attacked for both racism and ableism),49 “feminism [is both] legitimated and critiqued, appropriated and contained.”50 Spectators who approach this film expecting the tropes of rape-revenge or maternal revenge genres are discomforted by his conspicuous restraint about supplying the easy payoffs and identification positions that would see vengeful violence balanced and vindicated by the violence of the original outrage. This refusal to pander to audiences’ generic expectations is nowhere more conspicuous than in Three Billboards’ open ending, which refuses to fulfil not only generic conventions, but also moral expectations for punishment, redemption or forgiveness.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri may confront the fact that in 2017, many women still faced a no-win situation. The law is still terribly limited. However the film offers no easy answers to this conundrum. Mildred’s revenge is understandable, but her vindictiveness is terrible, and she cannot achieve it without the assistance of a man. Rape-revenge, despite recent remakes, may be a redundant trope, as is revealed by the exhaustion apparent in the male-directed I Spit on Your Grave sequels, the most recent of which was released in 2019 (I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà Vu, Meir Zarchi 2019). Or perhaps this is yet another premature prognosis of the genre’s death. That rape revenge is a live genre is indicated by several female-directed films: Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. (2017), Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020), and Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2018), which has received a positive critical reception.51 The arch-villain of that drama sums up the moral of the rape-revenge genre when he makes his concluding remarks: “Women always have to put up a fucking fight.” Mildred Hayes, in her intransigence, would surely agree.

Figure 15:
Figure 15: The endless cycle of retribution.
https://youtu.be/pzKIPxY8GBE

Author Biography

Joy McEntee is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide. Her work focuses on American film, especially Stanley Kubrick, and literature-to-film adaptation. It has appeared in Camera Obscura, Screening the Past, Senses of Cinema, Adaptation, Literature/Film Quarterly and the Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance.

Notes

  1. Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (London: Faber and Faber, 2018). N. Pag. [^]
  2. Francis Bacon, Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral (Auckland: The Floating Press, 2014), N. Pag. [^]
  3. Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992); Jacinda Read, The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity, and the Rape-Revenge Cycle (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 241. [^]
  4. Read, The New Avengers, 235. [^]
  5. Claire Henry, “Maternal Revenge and Redemption in Postfeminist Rape-Revenge Cinema,” in Best Served Cold: Studies in Revenge, ed. by Sheila C. Bibb and Daniel Escandell Montiel (Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2010), 105-13; Claire Henry, Revisionist Rape-Revenge Redefining a Film Genre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2014); Alexandra Nicholas-Heller, Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland, 2011). [^]
  6. Molly Ferguson, “‘I Retract That Bit…’: Hypermasculinity and Violence in Martin McDonagh’s Films,” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 30.1 (2019): 25-43; Nicolas Evans, "(Mis)Representation & Postcolonial Masculinity: The Origins of Violence in the Plays and Films of Martin McDonagh." Master of Arts, Oregon State University, 2017. [^]
  7. Ferguson, “‘I Retract.’“ [^]
  8. Henry, Revisionist, 1. [^]
  9. Henry, Revisionist, 46, 55. [^]
  10. Henry, Revisionist, 34. [^]
  11. Evans, “(Mis)representation,” 9. [^]
  12. Evans, “(Mis)representation,” 16-17. [^]
  13. Laura Eldred, "Martin McDonagh and the Contemporary Gothic," in Martin McDonagh: A Casebook, ed. by Richard Rankin Russell (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 124-125. [^]
  14. Evans, “(Mis)representation,” 64-65. [^]
  15. Evans, “(Mis)representation,” 65. [^]
  16. Evans, “(Mis)representation,” 17. [^]
  17. Eldred, “Martin McDonagh,” 126. [^]
  18. Jordan Kisner, “Frances McDormand’s Difficult Women,” The New York Times Magazine, October 3, 2017 www.nytimes.com/2017/10/03/magazine/frances-mcdormand-difficult-women-career-surge.html?_r=0. [^]
  19. David Fear, “Signs of the Times: Inside ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,’” Rolling Stone, November 13, 2017 www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/signs-of-the-times-inside-three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri-118777/. [^]
  20. Read, The New Avengers, 128. [^]
  21. Read, The New Avengers, 127-139 [^]
  22. Clover, 147, 149-150. [^]
  23. Grace Chiou, “Solidarity Beyond Obligation: Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri,” Journal of Religion & Film 22.3 (2018): 24. [^]
  24. Beck, Bernard. “Heartland: Forgiveness in Columbus, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Lady Bird,” Multicultural Perspectives 20.2 (2018): 95. [^]
  25. Caroline Fernelius, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) Dir. By Martin McDonagh,” Middle West Review 6.1-2 (2019-2020): 227. [^]
  26. Fernelius, “Three Billboards,” 225. [^]
  27. Fernelius, “Three Billboards,” 226. [^]
  28. Read, The New Avengers, 207-208. [^]
  29. Read, The New Avengers, 235. [^]
  30. Read, The New Avengers, 222. [^]
  31. Kisner, “Frances McDormand’s.” [^]
  32. Read, The New Avengers, 232. [^]
  33. Frances McDormand, “Frances McDormand Interview Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Premiere,” 22 October, 2017 www.youtube.com/watch?v=-buk68ylPXk. [^]
  34. Henry, “Maternal Revenge,” 105-110. [^]
  35. Henry, “Maternal Revenge,” 107. [^]
  36. Read, The New Avengers, 209. [^]
  37. Read, The New Avengers, 209. Emphasis added. [^]
  38. Read, The New Avengers, 214, 139. [^]
  39. Read, The New Avengers, 206. [^]
  40. Henry, “Maternal Revenge,” 110. [^]
  41. Jonathan Murray, "Reviewed Work(s): Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin and Martin McDonagh." Cineaste 43.3 (2018): 47-48. [^]
  42. Eldred, “Martin McDonagh,” 113. [^]
  43. Kisner, “Frances McDormand’s.” [^]
  44. Murray, "Reviewed,” 49. [^]
  45. Martin McDonagh, interviewed by Kristopher Tapley, “Playback: Martin McDonagh on “Three Billboards” and an Attraction to Dark Humor,” Variety. January 11, 2018 https://variety.com/2018/film/podcasts/playbackpodcast-martin-mcdonagh-three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri-1202661188/ [^]
  46. Martin McDonagh, The Pillowman (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), 85. [^]
  47. Murray, “Reviewed Work(s),” 48. [^]
  48. See Eamon Jordan, Justice in the Plays and Films of Martin McDonagh (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). [^]
  49. In recycling rape-revenge, McDonagh appears to perpetuate a genre—rape-revenge—which Read identifies as all-white. (Read, The New Avengers, 234, 252). However, this perception may have more to do with the selective lenses of criticism than the affordances of the genre, as is suggested films like Descent (Talia Lugacy, 2007), which features a Latina avenger played by Rosario Dawson. See Henry, Revisionist for a discussion of this film. For discussions of McDonagh’s racism and ableism, see also Marc Bernadin, “Despite Its Awards, Three Billboards Is a Shallow Look at Race in Rural America,” Guardian, January 10, 2018 www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jan/09/three-billboards-golden-globes-awards-race-rural-america; Zak Cheney-Rice, “Martin McDonagh Always Used Black Characters as Props. In Three Billboards, It Caught up with Him,” Mic, January 23, 2018 www.mic.com/articles/187513/martin-mcdonagh-always-used-black-characters-as-props-in-three-billboards-it-caught-up-with-him#.Q7gimhjys?; Eva Squire, “Three Billboards’ Portrayal of Dwarfism Is Reductive and Ableist, and I Would Know,” Guardian, February 1, 2018 www.theguardian.com/film/2018/feb/01/three-billboards-portrayal-of-dwarfism-is-reductive-and-ableist-and-i-would-know. [^]
  50. Read, The New Avengers, 248. [^]
  51. Anne Billson, “How the “Rape-Revenge Movie” Became a Feminist Weapon for the #Metoo Generation,” Guardian, May 11, 2018 www.theguardian.com/film/2018/may/11/how-the-rape-revenge-movie-became-a-feminist-weapon-for-the-metoo-generation. [^]