Note: I began writing this in early December, right after I saw the movie. I got sidetracked. In the time since then I have listened to a lot of people complain about the way Three Billboards handles race. I agree with them, and I think Martin McDonagh made a mistake – an honest and a well-intentioned one, but a mistake nonetheless – in introducing race into his movie and not actually dealing with it. That mistake was compounded by having the racist element be a cop who abused his power.
I don’t think that McDonagh’s larger points, which I write about below, are invalidated, or that the movie is worsened, but I think that the mistake he made hobbles the film in as much as it is harder for audiences to embrace what is already counterintuitive messaging.
This piece contains significant spoilers for Three Billboards.
“Anger begets more anger, and forgiveness and love lead to more forgiveness and love.”
That’s the theme of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and in grand black comedy fashion writer/director Martin McDonagh has the film’s dimmest character speak it. And she got it off a bookmark that she found in this book about polo… or polio. One or the other. She can’t quite tell them apart.
The advertising for Three Billboards made it look like a paean to righteous anger, with Frances McDormand as a small-town woman taking on corrupt cops who aren’t investigating the rape and murder of her daughter. But McDonagh has something else on his mind, and Three Billboards isn’t the story of a scrappy lady using her righteous anger to take on the system, but rather is a story that questions righteous anger in general.
If I had to give this film another title it would probably be Hurt People Hurt People: The Movie, as McDonagh creates an eccentric small town where everyone’s traumas bounce off of one another. It’s remarkable how he does this, and how fearless he is in this effort. Rather than presenting sympathetic characters who are slightly flawed, McDonagh creates real pieces of shit who have done terrible things… and he makes us feel for them. He allows us to see how these people have been hurt and how they have turned that hurt around and inflicted it on others. Rather than judge them for it – no matter how terrible their actions are, and some are truly terrible – McDonagh shows us the strength and bravery required to step outside of that chain of trauma and to show the compassion and love that halts the suffering and leads to the healing.
But he doesn’t make it easy, and he doesn’t make it a miraculous cure-all. He doesn’t have a cynical view of human nature so much as he has a relentlessly clear-eyed one. He sees the ways we paint ourselves as victims in order to justify terrible things we do to others, the way we justify the pain we pass on. He sees how much easier it is to engage in the cycle of trauma than to step back and halt it. And he doesn’t pretend that the hard work is miraculous, that stepping out of the cycle suddenly heals everyone and everything.
McDormand brings homeland hardness to her role of Mildred Hayes, angry and resentful mother to a daughter who was raped and burned to death. A year after the killing not only are the local police no closer to figuring out who killed her daughter, they’re enmeshed in a local scandal over torture of a black prisoner. One day, passing a trio of long-abandoned billboards, Hayes has the idea to put up a message to the police chief demanding answers in her case.
This is where McDonagh begins to show his brilliance. Her billboard activism feels good, feels righteous, feels like a voice for the voiceless. And when Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff Willoughby shows up at her home we think we’re going to see some sparks. We’re going to see the asshole hayseed come up against the righteous woman, and we’re going to see shit get crazy.
And that’s where the great casting comes in. We first met Harrelson as the dimwitted Woody Boyd in Cheers, but over the years he’s really excelled in playing characters who are far less wholesome. Woody Harrelson as a Southern sheriff? I can easily imagine him curbing a prisoner while sporting a big old aw-shucks smile on his face. And McDormand – we’re pretty much genetically programmed to like her, to find the ways she can be abrasive appealing and even inspiring. She’s the embodiment of the exasperated voice in our heads, the part of us that wishes we could stand up and stop taking so much shit. The conflict here seems clear – we’re going to see this racist sheriff and this righteous woman begin a titanic tussle of wills, and knowing McDonagh it might get dark and violent.
But that isn’t what happens. Instead Willoughby sits down and, very rationally, explains to Hayes why this case is so hard to crack. He explains to her what the realistic situation is, and how in cases like this – which seems to be an assault by a stranger – the cops rely on luck and the stupidity of criminals to eventually, one day, give them a shot. This is a movie, but it isn’t THE MOVIES, and so the unsolved murder isn’t a case of apathy, it’s a case of the limits of policework.
If you just know the movie from its advertising this is almost a disorienting moment. Where’s the volcanic energy? Where’s the cartoonish villainy from the cops? It almost seems as if the movie is telling us that Mildred Hayes is trapped in her own perspective and can’t see objective reality… that can’t be the point, can it?
Hot damn, yes it is.
The scene goes on to have Willoughby tell Hayes that he has cancer, and that it’s a death sentence. Again, the scene feels disorienting – is this about to turn into some kind of schmaltz story where these two find common ground, and perhaps even team up to solve the killing before Willoughby croaks? Well, the good news is that this is still McDonagh, and that means the answer is no. If anything, this cancer is thrown into muddy the waters further, and to give us more perspectives to ponder, and to give us more opportunities to see how people deal with their traumas.
What follows from there is a blackly comic series of escalating events as the main characters – McDormand as Hayes, Harrelson as Willoughby, Sam Rockwell as racist cop Dixon, Caleb Landry Jones as Red, the young advertising czar of Ebbings – bounce off one another in increasingly awful ways. McDonagh keeps tapping on the strings that connect these people, making them vibrate at each other in ways that set one another off, and the closed system becomes a feedback loop of anger and violence.
It’s breathtaking how he does it; Mildred is the heroine of the story, yet she is casually cruel (and utterly unpunished for it) to little person James (Peter Dinklage), who just wants to take her on a date. But we understand where that cruelty comes from – Mildred is dealing with not only the trauma of her daughter’s death but also the presence in that scene of her shitty ex-husband (John Hawkes, showing up in a couple of scenes to deliver a masterclass in creating a fully fleshed out character who is both hateful and sad). McDonagh leaves us grasping for something in that moment – a redemptive apology, an understanding from Mildred that she was wrong, a reveal that James is actually a dick – but he is just as cruel as reality. The truth, he understands, is that we hurt people just as we are hurt. We pass the buck.
McDonagh undercuts all the things he undercuts. First he undercuts Mildred’s righteous anger by revealing Willoughby’s mixture of decency and terminal cancer. Then he undercuts that by having Willoughby selfishly take his own life, a move that not only impacts Mildred terribly but also his young wife and daughter. McDonagh doesn’t JUDGE Willoughby, but that’s just because he’s not judging ANYBODY in this movie. He’s simply showing you how these actions play out; Willoughby thinks he’s saving his wife and child from seeing him get ill and die, but he’s actually denying them the processing of grief and robbing them of time with him.
Over the course of the movie characters try to redeem themselves; Dixon is fired, gets severely burnt, gets beaten and tries to crack the murder of Mildred’s daughter. But McDonagh doesn’t see redemption coming that way – he denies Dixon the ability to be the hero (despite setting up the mechanics for him to crack the case so perfectly… it’s truly a switcheroo when it doesn’t all add up). Instead he leaves Dixon at a crossroads; unable to connect a suspect to Mildred’s daughter’s death he nonetheless believes – with little to no real evidence – that this man is guilty of other crimes, and he intends to find him and kill him. He thinks he’s going to redeem himself this way, but the truth is that he’s only passing along the pain that he feels, and he’s only slowly killing himself inside. The film ends with Mildred and Dixon – once enemies, now compadres – driving to go kill a man they don’t know and whose guilt they can’t be sure of. Will they do it? McDonagh leaves that an open question.
So who is the hero of the movie? If there’s one character who represents the way forward it’s Red. The man who sold Mildred the billboards that started all the ruckus, he ends up getting assaulted by Dixon – and thrown out a window! – after Willoughby commits suicide (we see Dixon taking out the pain caused by his mentor’s death on the nearest bystander, basically. He invents a reason to brutalize the man). When Dixon gets burned in a fire at the police station (started by Mildred, who doesn’t realize she’s about to burn up the case files on her daughter), he ends up in the same hospital room as Red. There’s a deeply sinister moment when Red realizes who is in the other bed; hidden under bandages and immobilized, Dixon can’t protect himself. We wait for the (righteous) act of violence or anger… but Red simply gives the injured man some orange juice because he’s so dehydrated.
It’s the greatest moment of courage in the film (McDonagh really misses an opportunity by not having black characters exert equally heroic moral courage in a scene where Dixon is being beaten in a bar; it isn’t that the characters are unhelpful or anything, it’s that McDonagh never paints them vividly enough that their moment shines as well as Red’s does). Red actively steps outside of the chain of abuse and hate rather than perpetuate it. And it would be so easy for him to perpetuate it, and we would cheer him on.
That leads to the other major – and religious – thematic element at play in Three Billboards: grace. Grace, in Christianity, is the idea that you don’t have to do anything in order to be forgiven. God loves you enough that He just forgives you. As Saint Augustine said:
For grace is given not because we have done good works, but in order that we may be able to do them.
That’s the important thing – you don’t earn grace. In fact, you don’t DESERVE what you get. It’s given to you freely DESPITE you not deserving it. That’s what makes it special and generous. This is what McDonagh is exploring here, the place where redemption is impossible but where grace is needed. Red enacts the grace of God in that hospital room, and Dixon doesn’t deserve it. But that’s why it’s grace.
McDonagh rightfully understands that this is one of the most beautiful things in the world… and one of the most difficult. None of the main characters in this movie deserve forgiveness, but also none of them deserve the things that have happened to them in their lives. By understanding both of those things – you fucked up bad, but you also have been fucked up badly by your life – we can gain the strength and wisdom to remove ourselves, in some small way, from the cycle of creating suffering.
In the end THAT is the greatest sacrifice. Not blowing your brains out to spare your wife some pain, not making yourself an outcast in your town to bring about justice, not getting burned or beaten in an attempt to solve a murder case, but rather removing yourself from the ego-soothing salve of anger and hate, of denying yourself the pleasure of vengeance, giving yourself over to love. And make no mistake, Red loves Dixon, even if he hates him. Love in Western society has been narrowed down to a fraction of what love truly is, but Red gets love on a larger scale. He gets that love is understanding the humanity and pain in even the worst people, and that love is honoring and respecting that and wishing to not add to that burden, no matter how much the other person may deserve it.
This is a tough message in modern times (made tougher by McDonagh’s boneheaded racial choices). We live in a moment where vengeance reigns supreme, where punishment is what we demand. I listen to true crime podcasts and it’s appalling to hear even self-identifying liberals bemoan the lack of the death penalty in some cases, or that prisons treat killers like human beings.
McDonagh understands that this sort of stuff only makes us unhappy, and that the cycle of vengeance and anger and abuse only comes back around to get us at some point. He refuses to make these points using easy-to-love characters, and that’s a big part of what makes this movie brilliant and challenging. He gives every one of these characters deep, alienating flaws, and he also gives his obviously bad characters deep, humanizing traits. Dixon is bad, but he’s not bad in a vacuum, and we get to see the conditions that led him to his anger and bitterness and hatred and racism. Mildred is righteously angry, but we also get to see the bitterness and pettiness that underlies that even before her tragedy. We see the ways that she treats others poorly – the same behavior that, in one scene, has us cheering in another scene has us cringing.
But he’s never judging. He’s never saying these people are bad OR good (except maybe Red). He’s saying their people, and we’re all like this, if not on the scale of these people, and their foibles and mistakes are our own. And that while we don’t create the circumstances that make us (and others) miserable, we actively participate in perpetuating them. The only answer, he wisely tells us, is to step out of it altogether. Yes, it falls on the victim, but McDonagh recognizes that every victimizer is, in some way, a victim themselves unwilling to step outside the circle of pain.
It’s not an easy message, especially in a time of great social upheaval. But it’s maybe the only message that matters right – that we must love even those people who don’t deserve it. Perhaps especially the people who don’t deserve it.