Lots of SPOILERS Below.
I feel like an early thought in Martin McDonagh’s process for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri was something like, “how do I believably redeem a horribly despicable character, without having him entirely change his ways?” For me, that’s most of what his third feature hinges on.
The film has a lot of great other things going on for it: the set-up (the whole first 20 minutes, I think) is so good. It’s where McDonagh achieves his best balance of comedy and tension and where the film is the least on-the-nose. The performances, as have already been recognized, are great. There are so many awesome little beats. One of my favorites is when Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby accidentally coughs up blood on Mildred (Frances McDormand), if for no other reason, for the look of pure shock on his face. When the film is funny, it’s funny. The background of a potential war crime is interesting and gotten to in a unique way.
But that initial question just doesn’t totally land in the end. There’s the critical scene where Dixon (Sam Rockwell) marches up to the advertising agency office across from the police department and beats Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones – how magnetic is this guy?) to within an inch of his life, including throwing him out of the window. On its own the scene is an intense long take with a visceral camera. I think the point of the scene is mostly three-fold: show how much Dixon loved Willoughby (and, it follows, Dixon’s odd way of mourning), show us Dixon being violent on-screen (since much of this violence is in the recent past and off-screen), and function as a way to get Dixon fired.
This is the high point (or low point, I suppose) of Dixon’s evilness. He’s bad and he shouldn’t be a cop. If he did this to a white character, we’re supposed to think, what would this outward racist have done to a black character?
It’s what, 15 minutes later that we’re rooting for Dixon? On paper this strategy is fun and crazy. At the time of Welby’s beating I’m thinking that there’s no way I’ll like Dixon and this will be carry forward as a film pitting now-ex-cop Dixon against Mildred. Kudos to the movie for taking unexpected directions – it never goes there. I love that about it.
But on-screen the strategy bumps. In an almost immediately subsequent scene Dixon breaks into the police office at night to pick up a letter from Willoughby (and also to drop of his keys and heroically save the file on Mildred’s daughter’s case). It’s this scene that begins his redemption. Okay, sure I feel basic human empathy for anyone whose face is on fire, but it’s basically Willoughby’s touching voiceover letter, the physical harm that Dixon undergoes while saving the aforementioned file, and then a scene shortly thereafter where Welby offers him a glass of orange juice in their shared hospital room…and boom. Sympathetic character.
Maybe I’m oversimplifying. Are we supposed to still dislike Dixon and remember the things he’s accused of, but reluctantly root for him because he’s at least getting the bad guys? I don’t think so. Everything Dixon does from here on out is movie-star-valiant (a beating he intentionally takes) or good-guy-relatable (a swing-set conversation with Mildred).
I think what this boils down to is that I don’t like that I’m supposed to root for Dixon and just ignore his past which the film goes so out of the way to make me aware of in the first act. His arc feels too easy that way, so that when he and Mildred are on an unusual road trip at the end I find a bad taste in my mouth, and not because of where they’re going, but because of a “quirkiness” that feels manufactured.
I’m not the writer that McDonagh is, so I can’t really presume a better solution. The ones that come to mind are pretty cheesy. You can’t really have Dixon apologize to the people he’s hurt in the past. That’s too big a turnaround and not believable. I wonder what the film would feel like if there was another scene, post-hospital, where Dixon did something bad again. Maybe that’s way too on-the-nose, or just interrupts a really beautifully structured script. Maybe it gives me the pause I think I’m looking for.