Every once in a while, a film enters into the culture sphere so uniquely fitted to answer the thorny questions of the day, and one would be forgiven for wondering if the entire project had been written, shot and released in the last fortnight. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, scooper of the Golden Globe and frontrunner for the Academy Award, is one such film.
In fact, Martin McDonagh’s third leap upon the canvas of the director’s chair lasted a mere 33 summer days of filming in the idylls of 2016 — long before the transatlantic turbulence of the year gone by. A remarkably prophetic piece of art — the thematic foregrounding of racism and sexual abuse is all the more poignant with events like the Charlottesville March and the Hollywood scandals looming large in the rear-view mirror — Three Billboards is a voice of harmony amidst the roars of an ever-fracturing society. Today, although we live in the most brilliantly technicoloured of times, some insist on envisaging the world as black and white. The fallout of such a binary worldview has been the resurgence of championing the superficial differences we have, while disregarding the common humanity we share. No matter how noble their ends, nor sincere their means, those who, amongst the myopic parade of identity politics — the stuffing of individual complexity into group conformity — have carved great, impassable chasms along demographic lines. Thus, with the teams neatly laid out, society has become a game to be won — the rules of which are decidedly few. In the name of victory, ostracisation has become a credible fate, character assassination a rewarding hobby. A criterion for Homo sapiens has been erected that is perilously independent of reality. Fortunately, with a clairvoyance so often in the wheelhouse of the great artists of a given age, Martin McDonagh seems to have heard the sirens in the wind long beforehand. Timely and truthful to a commensurate degree, McDonagh’s latest offering to the silver screen is an ode to the grey within human nature and a refutation of the false prophets who preach perfection. The characters who roam the story of Three Billboards, perfect sketches of imperfection, are a celebration of our often futile bids for self-betterment and our indelible capacity for change.
“There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”
- Francis Bacon
To say that the characters of Three Billboards have some strangeness in their proportions would be to vastly undersell the imagination of Martin McDonagh. Bombastic, batty and entirely brutal, the members of the Hayes family and the Ebbing Police Department are flawed to the nth degree. In a role that seems meticulously sculpted just for her — in fact, it was — Frances McDormand delivers a barnstorming performance as the indomitable Mildred Hayes, mother of one newly sister-less son and three provocative billboards. Yet, although the ascendant hero of the story, McDonagh and McDormand collaborate masterfully to imbue the character of Mildred with shades of grey; extorting the reams of blind empathy so often extended to the hero. Measured against the requirements of social justice, Mildred — a woman quite au fait with racist terminology and kicking schoolgirls in the crotch — is not your typical hero of the 21st century. In her more hard-hearted moments with Chief Willoughby, or when her violence borders on gratuitous, the audience is forced to reconsider whether they are even on Mildred’s side. Ultimately, however, the sheer dynamism and agency of Mildred outweighs her moral missteps and social improprieties. Refusing to wallow in the throes of victimhood, Mildred swaps pity for action. Bravery, sacrifice, strength: these are the traits that make a hero, and these are the reasons why we rally unreservedly behind Mildred, despite her imperfections.
In the form of Officer Dixon, however — a character that has drawn both criticism and praise — McDonagh poses an altogether trickier proposition. First of all, the performance of Sam Rockwell, a consummate rendering of a man crippled with a harrowing mania and endearing naiveté, is not the bone of contention—the early and eager chirping of awards season canaries are proof positive of that. Nor is the racist and violent nature of his character the problem; even in the last few years, audiences have been appalled and enthralled, but never outraged, at the slave-trading Armitage family in Get Out and Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the brutal Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave. Why the disparity in reaction? In short, Officer Dixon undergoes a metamorphosis, a resurrection. When an earphoned Dixon bobs his shoulders and pouts his lips along to his questionable choice in music, while his partners in the background are informed of the death of his mentor, McDonagh and Rockwell force us into the uncomfortable position of pitying the baddie, empathising with the apathetic. While the arcs of the Armitage family and Edwin Epps fit neatly within the antagonist category, Officer Dixon, with his last ditch pursuit of internal salvation and external justice, becomes far less easily pigeonholed. Thus, for people who insist on reducing the world to a dichotomy of good and evil, black and white, Officer Dixon poses an ideological red flag — hence the backlash. Can we be expected to forgive Dixon’s illiterate racism? Of course not. But, can we reconcile the idea that bad people can sometimes do, or even become, good? Perhaps so. With directorial sleight of hand, McDonagh uses the burning of the billboards to tap into the intrinsic bias against Dixon; forcing us to recognise our capacity for mistake. Thus, with regard to his redemptive arc and the accruing moral stumbles of Mildred Hayes, McDonagh leads us from contrary hills to a common valley. Although to vastly different degrees, the people of Ebbing, as our neighbours and ourselves, are varied shades of grey.
“Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.”
- The Rigveda
Branching off from the idea of human imperfectability, the virtue of honesty, or truth, constitutes another thematic pillar of Three Billboards — and a pressing one at that. Bizarrely, the rise of a right-wrong perception of morality has been met by the fall of the right-wrong perception of truth. Under attack from postmodern academia on the left and evangelical demagoguery on the right, many truths — particularly, truths that poke holes in ideology — have become either villainised or devalued. The assault on truth has been waged on a linguistic battleground; whereupon the content of one’s character has fallen secondary to the content of one’s language. Indeed, today, people are more often blacklisted for something they have said, rather than something they have done. The newfangled deification of language has had some startling consequences. The contemporary trend of defending censorship and compelling trigger warnings under the hoisted rationale that words are violence, although mostly well-intentioned, conflicts with what we expect from our heroes and what we know about the human mind: facing up to our deepest and darkest fears, rather than letting them fester in the woods of subconscious denial, constitutes the bedrock of clinical psychology.
In her pursuit of the truth, Mildred is at the same time stubbornly offensive and admirably heroic. The billboards not only sting the wounds of the proud townsfolk and local police department, but of the beleaguered Willoughbys, her mourning son and her own sense of guilt-wracked motherhood. For those who place speech on a par with action, Mildred and Dixon are inherently problematic. What do we do with a character like Mildred, who says the wrong things for the right reasons? Sure, those among us who bear no racial feelings whatsoever can rightfully and proudly set ourselves apart from Officer Dixon, but how many of us have put our body on the line to bring about justice for a dead girl we hardly knew? When ruminating on what a film is trying to say, the best place to start is often at the end; to ask the question: who ends up where? The closeted abuser Charlie Hayes and the rapist at-large, both characters who attempt to hide their true natures, are two characters to whom McDonagh offers no ultimate absolution, no redemption. The film closes with a long take of the newly allied Mildred and Dixon; two characters who, in their pursuit for the truth, managed (often to a fault) to remain true to themselves. In a story of blurred lines and shifting boundaries, the virtue of honesty remains one of the few constants.
The truth may hurt, but so does exercise. To those who regard the extreme wings of society with a commensurate wariness, the enfeeblement of objectivity is palpable and worrisome. Truth is truth, no matter how we dress it linguistically. Music, sport, cinema, the internet: every last pocket of culture has become divided and conquered by the tendrils of politics. From within the smog, Three Billboards emerged as film made in the name of art alone; an apolitical meeting ground, bereft of ideological bent, where politically correct speech meets politically incorrect behaviour, and vice versa. McDonagh, far from tell his audience how to feel or with whom to side, strides in the opposite direction—a refreshing restraint from moral pandering so frequent in the television and cinema of today. Can you empathise with a repenting racist who endeavours to protect the honour of a murdered rape victim? McDonagh leaves that up to you. Whatever your final appraisal of Officer Dixon may be, denying the existence of imperfect people does not edge us toward a perfect world. In the real world, there are irredeemable baddies and there are redeemable baddies, those to whom injustice and misfortune have dealt heavy hands. In a society polarised beyond recognition, perhaps audiences could learn a little something from Mildred and Dixon; two characters who learned to overlook their superficial differences and recognise their shared humanity. To truly come together, however, people need to be able to express themselves honestly to one another, without fear of retribution. Today, the balance between politeness and honesty has tripped rather drastically toward the former — a disequilibrium that Three Billboards, and its success thereof, brilliantly foregrounds. Both a tool for the downtrodden and weapon against the downtrodder, honesty must be valued and protected. Censorious fear-mongering is not the answer. Acting as inquisitors, with our ears pressed up to the doors of our neighbours, creates stealthier baddies, not repentant ones. As the story of Three Billboards shows, on the road to justice, one often has to tread on a few toes. To protect honesty and let our true natures shine, we must somehow learn to count to three and not fence ourselves off from one another on account of natural disagreements or inevitable failings.