The 2018 Academy Awards are coming up this Sunday, and here, Brittany Deininger writes about one of the Best Picture nominees, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Brittany explores how Three Billboards, like Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, challenges our conceptions of anger, violence, and the polarities of humanity embodied in each of us—raising vital and difficult questions about how we relate and react to one another. Warning: plot spoilers ahead for Three Billboards.
As Oscar season is upon us, one nominee has stuck with me like the pang of bruised ribs. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a hauntingly brutal tale depicting a web of characters who rage as they figure out how to live in the ambiguous landscape where justice eludes them and violence is anything but redemptive. They each embody the question, who do you hold accountable when the whole world is on fire? At the center of the dark comedy is Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand, the mother of a young woman whose brutal rape and murder has gone unsolved. In putting up three billboards detailing the murder and singling out the police chief Willoughby, Mildred asks why no arrests have been made and incites the polar responses of empathy and disgust from the community.
Three Billboards is a brilliant cinematic meditation on anger. At times its characters wield it with holy righteousness. At other times its characters’ indignation at the changing world is as foul as their ideology. Anger becomes a form of compassionate care that draws a boundary and says, “No!” At other times it turns to violence as a response to powerlessness and vulnerability. Mildred provides an important powerhouse embodiment of female anger that rages on behalf of all of us against the systemic sexualized violence that pervades the world. Mildred’s anger has particularity to it. It is anger mixed with grief and love. It is rage made of a betrayal of trust to protect what is most loved and valued.
The film itself rages against grasps for power through violence including the battering and rape of women, police brutality against black bodies, ugly narratives of white supremacy, and the insufficiency of justice in the face of these compounded traumas that fillet our vulnerabilities wide open. Mildred’s billboards symbolize the voice that names trauma and keeps the community’s attention on the visible and invisible marks of violence. As theologian Shelly Rambo argues in her book Spirit and Trauma, “Trauma is what does not go away. It persists in symptoms that live on in the body, in the intrusive fragments of memories that return. It persists in symptoms that live on in communities, in the layers of past violence that constitute present ways of relating.” Mildred wields her testament to the way trauma does not simply go away and constitutes present ways of relating.
Perhaps the thesis question of the film is uttered by Mildred in a moment of reflection, “So is that it? There is no God, the world is empty, and it doesn’t matter what we do to one another?” Director Martin McDonaugh’s film leaves us with a subsequent answer. Having waded through gestures of the polarities of humanization and brutal dehumanization, it does indeed matter what we do to one another. It matters for the humanity of the other. It matters for the humanity of ourselves.
“It does indeed matter what we do to one another.”
Three Billboards displays a cast of characters that are riddled with sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and ignorance. But rather than create a simple trope of good vs. evil, the director transforms these figures into something more complex: human beings. Each character displays capacity for both unspeakable violence and gestures of goodness. Perhaps what is most disconcerting is how quickly the director disrupts our feelings toward a character and the dynamics between characters in a fraction of a second. People we are ready to hate elude our certainty. People we are ready to love disappoint and confuse us.
For example, during a heated interrogation, the police chief Willoughby, who is dying of cancer, accidentally spits blood in Mildred’s face. His expression contains that mixture of fear and embarrassment as he fumbles an apology assuring her that he didn’t mean to do it. She interrupts and meets him with a mother’s words, “I know baby. I know you didn’t mean to. I’m going to go get help.” The entrance of vulnerability and suffering turns the characters from combatant in custody to mother, from interrogator to son.
In another example, the director highlights this same radical subversion of hatred when the deplorable officer Dixon is hospitalized for saving Mildred’s daughter’s case file from a fire. Dixon finds himself sharing a hospital room with Red Welby, whom he put in the hospital by throwing him out of a second story window. Even after Red discovers the identity of his roommate, he still brings Dixon a cup of orange juice and faces the straw toward him in an act of compassion. Though he is shaking with fear and anger, Red subverts the dynamic and follows through with his small humanizing gesture disrupting the cycle of violence.
Earlier in the film, when we meet Red for the first time, he is reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. O’Connor’s short story holds a similar eerie tone and mingles much of the same gestures of humanization in the midst of grotesque and murderous violence that we find in Three Billboards. It may serve as a sypher for this complex and fierce film. Both the director and O’Connor seem to be asking, if we are capable of such startling gestures of goodness and humanity, why does it take so much to get us there? Why are these moments so brief? Why are our transformations of change not concomitant with gained knowledge? Why do we not do better when we know better? Throughout the film the tiny gestures that display a capacity for goodness are meant to haunt us. In O’Connor’s short story, there is no such thing as a good person. There is no such thing as an evil person. There is only a capacity for goodness and evil mixed together in all of us. The moral scaffolding that defines someone as “good” is brought down in shambles by a traumatic event. In the final cryptic moment of her story, O’Connor’s figure of goodness claims the “evil” person as a son, one of her own rather than erecting a barrier of moral difference.
Perhaps herein lies the challenge of watching Three Billboards and reading A Good Man Is Hard to Find. How do we hold the tension between wielding a prophetic and holy “No!” against violence without dehumanizing the other and ourselves in the process? How do we refuse to condone the actions of evil while claiming the people who perpetuate evil are still people, with capacities for goodness and evil not unlike our own? The director seems to depict the idea that what we do with our traumas impacts how we will be in the world both individually and communally. What we do to one another matters abundantly.