Lately I’ve been feeling conflicted about how much I enjoyed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Having read a lot of the critical backlash, I can now see how writer and director Martin McDonagh’s engagement with racism is glib and manipulative. But I have to admit that while watching Three Billboards, the only thing I perceived as seriously off-key was the setting. I kept thinking it was set in some small western town, near a coast, but then a character would say something about being in “the south” and I would have to recalibrate. More than once, I had to remind myself of the film’s title in order to get my bearings. This admittedly, is a pretty big problem for a film to have, but I felt like the whole thing was made coherent—or at least was made to seem coherent—by Francis McDormand’s leading performance.
McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a woman whose daughter is raped and murdered. The killer is still on the loose, and Mildred blames the local police for not finding him. She airs her grievance spectacularly, posting it on three billboards, and calling out the police chief, Willoughby, by name. Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, is sympathetic to her plight. But he’s also dying of cancer, so everyone in town is sympathetic to him. Except Mildred. She doesn’t care that he’s dying. Her daughter is dead. She doesn’t care about anything.
In McDormand, I saw a person that we have all known, and perhaps been at some point in our lives: someone in so much pain that she can no longer see anyone else’s. It’s unusual for a woman to play this kind of character, because women are brought up to be sensitive to the feelings of others. But Mildred has given up being empathetic. She doesn’t want to distance herself from her anger, because it’s her only way of holding onto her daughter. It’s fitting that the only person she can really talk to is Willoughby, a person with a terminal diagnosis. He’s also lost his taste for social niceties. I think where the screenplay fails is in the relationship between Willoughby and Mildred. The whole movie should have been about the two of them, reckoning with their mutual rage, which Willoughby expresses in his suicide. Instead, McDonagh shifted the focus of the story toward Willoughby’s protégé, Dixon, a racist, impulsive cop (played by Sam Rockwell). Some critics have praised McDonagh’s plot turns, while others have focused their critique on Dixon’s redemptive character arc as evidence of McDonagh’s tone-deafness when it comes to race. To me, it felt like McDonagh veered toward Dixon because he didn’t know what to do with Mildred’s anger. He’d stumbled onto something too big, too diffuse, and too sad.
A couple of weeks after I saw Three Billboards, I re-watched Thelma & Louise, a movie that takes female rage as its subject. I found it cathartic to watch it again at this particular political moment. I hadn’t seen it since I was a teenager, and I had forgotten how terrific the writing is. Callie Khouri won an Oscar for the screenplay and it’s easy to see why: the story moves quickly and precisely even as there is room for funny dialogue and quiet moments between the two leads. The friendship between the two women is potent and real. Thelma and Louise are quite different, in terms of temperament and personality, but it doesn’t matter because they get each other. My husband has a saying about relationships: people become friends when their sense of humor and their sense of outrage is aligned. You can see that with Thelma and Louise: they laugh hard at the same jokes, and the same things incense them.
What Thelma & Louise gets right about female rage is how transformative it can be. When Thelma and Louise first go on the run, it’s out of fear and a simmering anger. Something terrible has happened to them, but they know “nobody would have believed us” and that they have to escape because “the law is some tricky shit.” But as they drive farther and farther west, and as their circumstances become more and more desperate, the fear melts away and they become almost giddy with anger. They feel a kind of crazy freedom. There’s a sense of discovery, too. Thelma famously says, “Something’s crossed over with me. I can’t go back.” And: “I feel awake, I feel wide awake. Everything looks different.”
Something else I noticed about Thelma & Louise upon re-watching was how well the landscape of the southwest worked as a backdrop for their story. Many critics have written about how Thelma & Louise reclaims the western, a genre typically dominated by male protagonists, and I felt that, but for me, the barren deserts of the southwest felt right because it was the only place big enough to absorb their pain. There’s something otherworldly about the rock formations out there, that made it feel as if Thelma and Louise had truly “crossed over” into a different world, where they no longer had to follow the rules that had always held them back.
According to Vanity Fair’s making of Thelma & Louise, Callie Khouri had Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand in mind when she was writing her screenplay. I love Susan Sarandon’s and Geena Davis’s performances in the movie, but I can’t help wondering what McDormand would have been like, and which part she would have played. I’m guessing Louise, because it’s easier to imagine her as a more world-weary character, but I can also see her as kooky, innocent-seeming Thelma. I think Thelma shares a little bit of DNA with McDormand’s iconic Fargo character, Marge Gunderson, in that they are both a lot tougher than they initially seem.
McDormand was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Three Billboards, and I was interested to learn that she modeled Mildred after John Wayne, because of my initial impression of Three Billboards as a western. I was also fascinated by her assertion that Mildred is Marge Gunderson grown up. When McDormand was offered the part of Mildred, she told McDonagh that Mildred should be a grandmother instead of a mother, because at 58, she was too old to play a mother to teenagers, and that someone of Mildred’s background wouldn’t have waited so long. When I read that, I thought oh my god, she’s right!! And then I began to imagine what the movie would have been like with Mildred as a grandmother: what would Mildred’s daughter be like? And what would the dynamic be like, between them? What if the daughter hated the billboards? Or, what if the teenage girl had been living with the grandmother at the time, because she wasn’t getting along with the mother? But apparently that scenario did not ignite McDonagh’s imagination in the same way, because he told McDormand that she had to play a mother because a grandmother wouldn’t fight for a grandchildren in the same way. McDormand’s Mildred-like reply: “That’s stupid, you’re a man and not a parent obviously.”
I am now guilty of criticizing McDonagh’s movie for not being the movie I wanted it to be, but my question is, how much of this longing for a different film comes from McDormand’s performance? I wonder if her portrayal of Mildred overwhelmed Three Billboards. Is she in a different, better film that McDonagh didn’t actually make? Did some of us see that film in our mind’s eye instead of what was plainly on the screen? I got this idea, in part, from the critic Aisha Harris, who described McDormand as “a powerful drug,” one so potent that she had overlooked the movie’s flaws. I was also inspired by a quote I saw in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In an exhibit about the contributions of African American actors, there was this insight about acting, from James Baldwin:
“What the black actor has managed to give are moments—indelible moments, created, miraculously, beyond the confines of the script: hints of reality, smuggled like contraband into a maudlin tale, and with enough force, if unleashed, to shatter the tale into fragments.”
I started this post with the idea that McDormand’s performance is the thing that made Three Billboards cohere, but now I wonder if her performance works “beyond the confines of the script,” and in doing so, revealed a certain emptiness at the center of the story. Either way, it seems unlikely that Three Billboards would have gotten any attention without her. To his credit, McDonagh seems to know this and has said she was the only actress he could imagine playing the part. I’ll be happy to see her win an Oscar on Sunday, not because Mildred is my favorite of her performances, but because she has been a muse to so many different writers, inspiring filmmakers to create roles interesting and complicated enough for her to embody.