Three billboards hover above a country road outside Ebbing, Missouri, and an entire country’s social issues — race, rape, misogyny, poverty — cling to them like peeling paint.
When I saw “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” on a cold Midwestern night a few weeks ago, I didn’t move for ten minutes afterward, for shock. I was seared, as I entered this volatile Western ghost town, Midwestern blip on the radar, and Southern tale of the grotesque, by the way Ebbing’s suffering is wrapped up in the fury of a single grieving mother: Mildred Hayes.
Though much has been made of the political background of the film, if “Three Billboards” wins an Oscar from any of its seven nominations (and one should go to Frances McDormand in her blazingly brilliant leading performance), it will be for its depiction of the way all rages become Mother Mildred’s own in her quest for a justice that is lethally laced with lost love.
Seven months after her daughter’s rape and murder, the Ebbing Police Department’s investigation has gone cold, but Mildred still has a burning question, which she, as resident avenging ass-kicker, decides to make public:
“RAPED WHILE DYING AND STILL NO ARRESTS? HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” the billboards read.
The fallout is immediate and explosive (spoilers impending): Turns out, the Police Chief has his own grief to deal with. He’s dying of cancer, and this has distracted him from the investigation. But in this clash of loves, Mildred has no sympathy, and it becomes clear that Mother Justice has allowed grief to blind her.
This blindness leads her into a disturbing parallel with Officer Jason Dixon, who, in his infamous tenure at the Ebbing Police Department, executes his own form of “justice” by torturing black men and beating up young upstarts who insult his pride.
Dixon and Hayes end up on the warpath for their own reasons, but it leads the bumbling, racist idiot and the mother further into self-justified acts of violence in the name of their causes. As vengeance tears the town apart, redemption becomes more necessary and more difficult for both characters, and much of the criticism of the movie centers around the way director Martin McDonagh thinks they earn it.
The film self-consciously situates itself within America’s Southern literary and Western film traditions, a confluence of genres that has arisen naturally in the last century as the spirit of Southern post-Civil-War writing moves northward. Now critics talk about the Midwestern Gothic, a breeding ground for stories about the emptinesses, arguments, and struggles of American life in a place and political conversation that it seems like time forgot.
But McDonagh is an Irishman. And what, critics ask, can an Irishman know? Does the fact that a young character in the movie reads Flannery O’Connor make the story American? O’Connor, the argument goes, was in a unique place to understand the struggles of American life mid-Civil-Rights-Movement because she was rooted in it.
McDonagh, it seems, tosses together American problems with race relations, misogyny, law enforcement, and treatment of women in the name of a drama he doesn’t fully understand. This is particularly troublesome in the case of Dixon — Can we, after Ferguson, forgive a bad racist cop as easily as someone outside the crisis asks us to?
Redemption for Dixon and Hayes hinges, in the eyes of critics, on a demanding (and typically 21st-century American) moral calculus: Treat Not Race Relations Lightly, and Hide Them Not Under Other, More Central Plot Concerns. But this criticism of McDonagh runs deeper than plot. The resentment for outside commentary is a tribal one that steals lines from the American Identity Wars: Above all, Be Authentic. Identify, Identify. And since McDonagh sets his story outside Dublin, he can’t. He couldn’t possibly.
An representative example from Hanif Abduraqib at the Pacific Standard: “It is asking a lot of people to watch a story in which we root for a racist and abusive police officer in the name of his own redemption.”
I don’t want to dismiss that most effective of writers’ workshop adages: Write what you know. It’s possible that McDonagh doesn’t. But he seems aware that redemption can’t just be ripped from an O’Connor-esque idea of finding beauty in dark situations and souls:
“I don’t think [Dixon’s] character is redeemed at all – he starts off as a racist jerk. He’s the same pretty much at the end, but, by the end, he’s seen that he has to change,” McDonagh said in an interview with EW. “There is room for it, and he has, to a degree, seen the error of his ways, but in no way is he supposed to become some sort of redeemed hero of the piece.”
It’s telling that, when faced with a story about a mother’s ever-more-reckless search for justice, critics swarm on the nasty white man crusading alongside her.
Viewers who fixate on Dixon miss the way this unexpected companionship turns the moral compass on Mildred as she finds herself on Dixon’s side in tracking down Angela’s rapist — Dixon to prove that he’s a good cop after all, and Mildred to take matters into her own hands as a substitute for despair. Predictably, the two cut swaths of destruction in what seems like a death spiral for the hope for justice in any form, and Mildred’s own moral mirror begins to cloud in ways disturbingly similar to Dixon’s.
How to escape the death throes of loss? What happens when the whole world’s sorrows seem to swarm around a single event? That’s a question viewers could not ask if McDonagh hadn’t aimed so high in his depiction of a rural American tragedy.
But it’s not a question McDonagh answers. For a lapsed Catholic, it seems impossible to apply the “It’s messy, but grace shows through the cracks” thesis that works so well for O’Connor. At best, the comic thrust of an absurd final scene where the two warriors find themselves on an awkward road trip in the name of justice can say to viewers, “It’s complicated.”
It would be better if Mildred’s rage and Dixon’s racism were purgatorial fires. But “Three Billboards” left me burnt out, spent in the embers — and this is grief, before the phoenix.
That seems to be enough for McDonagh. But I don’t know if Mildred would have accepted that answer to her question on the third billboard: “How come?”