Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017)

by Christopher B. Barnett

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Since its publication in 1953, Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” has become a staple of American literature courses. Often read alongside the works of authors such as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, the story is thought to be emblematic of “Southern Gothic” literature, a subgenre in which mysterious and even macabre elements are used to explore various social issues, particularly those associated with the American South (poverty, racism, religion, etc.). O’Connor’s place in this genre is often associated with her development of “grotesque” characters — that is, characters who simultaneously elicit disgust and empathy. These figures may be sinful, but they are not, sensu stricto, evil; they are disfigured, wounded. O’Connor ties this type of characterization to her Southern-cum-Catholic background: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.”

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” centers on a banally dysfunctional Georgia family en route to Florida for a summer vacation. After a series of misadventures, they get lost somewhere east of Macon, near the ominously named Toomsboro. A freak accident occurs, and their car plunges into a ditch. Confused and irritated, but not mortally wounded, the family flags an oncoming vehicle for help. Three armed men get out, and the family’s matriarch — a jejune and self-centered woman known only as the Grandmother — identifies them as a band of fugitives led by The Misfit, a notorious murderer. Under duress, the Grandmother pleads with The Misfit for her life: “She found herself saying, ‘Jesus, Jesus,’ … but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.” The Misfit begins to contemplate Jesus and the possibility of his raising the dead: “‘I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t [raise the dead]…I wish I had of been there … If I had of been there I would of known…and I wouldn’t be like I am now.'” Suddenly, as if receiving a revelation, the Grandmother intuits The Misfit’s pain and her own peculiar relation to it. She sympathetically places her hand on The Misfit’s shoulder, but he recoils and shoots her three times. “‘She would of been a good woman,'” The Misfit reflects, “‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'”

In an opening scene of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, in an Oscar-winning performance) visits a local advertising agency, hoping to lease the eponymous billboards on the outskirts of town. Business is slow, and so Mildred finds the agency’s manager Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) in a quiet moment — his feet propped on his desk, book in hand.

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The book is O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” McDonagh’s camera lingers on it just long to enough to let the viewer take note. In turn, he suggests that the following story is an exercise in O’Connor-like grotesquerie — a film, in other words, that will offer signs of grace but in the midst of human fallenness.

To be sure, Mildred understands the brokenness of humanity all too well. Her husband left her for a younger woman, further complicating an already precarious domestic life. Then things went from bad to (impossibly) worse: her daughter was raped and murdered in a crime that remains unsolved. Sensing apathy from the local police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), she decides to put pressure on the authorities by, quite literally, advertising her pain on a trio of billboards:

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Many of the residents of Ebbing (a fictional town represented by Sylva, North Carolina) are offended by Mildred’s signs, not only because of their brazenness, but also because they imply that Willoughby has been negligent. A pillar of the community, Willoughby has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and many resent that Mildred refuses to allow him to spend his final weeks in peace. No one is angrier at Mildred than Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, who also won an Oscar for his role), an officer in the Ebbing PD whose childlike admiration for Willoughby is matched only by his enmity toward everyone else. So, when Willoughby commits suicide, Dixon’s worst tendencies come to the fore. He drinks heavily and, in a scene with Scorsese-like flair, tosses Welby from a second-story window. Dismissed from the force, Dixon appears to be a lost cause, but a series of unexpected events sets him on a different path — one that, as he sees it, would have met Willoughby’s approval. He reconciles with Mildred, and the two vow to become vigilantes on behalf of abused women.

It is easy to see, then, how Three Billboards could be seen as an example of grotesque cinema. As in O’Connor’s stories, the film does not feature a classic protagonist — a savior who is confident, noble, and pure. Rather, its three main characters are flawed in significant ways. Willoughby has the mien of a hero but is terrified of his own mortality. Dixon is a goon and a racist. And though Mildred is billed as the lead character, her bitterness has twisted her into an icon of guerrilla warfare:

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On the other hand, McDonagh manages to elicit empathy for each of these figures too. Willoughby is a good man cut down in his prime. Dixon belongs to the “working poor,” meagerly educated and still living at home — with his xenophobic and spiteful mother, no less. And Mildred’s suffering goes without saying. The upshot is an ambiguous, even erratic film.

Perhaps that is why, awards aside, Three Billboards has garnered more than a little criticism. One commentator has accused McDonagh of naïvely subverting the film’s principal aim, namely, the elevation of a strong female lead character: “Three Billboards hasn’t just stripped Mildred of her sympathy, but her humanity as well. Her unhinged rage — expressions of which are framed as invitations to spout you-go-girl-isms at the screen — makes her look silly instead, and the righteousness of her cause suffers as a result.” Tim Parks, writing in The New Yorker, excoriates McDonagh for dangling “caricatures, conflict, and political correctness” as Oscar-bait:

Below the surface of this narrative, a deeper conflict is being waged: the fight of the liberal intelligentsia against the redneck, racist Trump voters of Missouri. (Or, perhaps, against the Brexit folk of northern England; where this story is set is merely a matter of commercial opportunity.) All of the sophistication of modern cinema, the extraordinary competence of modern acting and modern photography, is brought to bear on exposing the vulgarity of the conservative Midwestern provinces. It is not a fair fight. The seductive power of these images, and the powerful sense of reality they convey, covers up a thousand cheap coincidences and blatant manipulations of the story line.

Such reviews of Three Billboards have become so common — from both sides of the political divide — that Wesley Morris has grown exasperated, not just with the film itself, but also with the whole Oscar season: “The movie isn’t an explicit work of politics, but it reaches something political in certain people in the same way it touches something emotional in others. And yet in arguing about this movie what I don’t want, but where I’m afraid we are — with lots of film this time every year — is in another fight over a movie’s politics that manages to leave the movie itself behind. Whose fault is that? We’ve been seduced and bullied into thinking of the awards season as a process of politics.”

The claim that Three Billboards is mostly interested in politics is an important one, because it suggests how McDonagh’s art ultimately differs from O’Connor’s. In a September 1955 letter, O’Connor laments that “[p]olicy and politics generally go contrary to principle,” whereas she identifies herself with the “mystical body” of the Church — an institution that names deviations from principle (including ecclesial deviations) as “sin.”  Is this, then, what differentiates “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” from Three Billboards — that the former concerns a fallenness that transcends finite human (and thus political) distinctions, while the latter reduces fallenness to precisely such distinctions? If so, this would explain why McDonagh’s use of the grotesque softens at film’s end, when Dixon’s assumption of a new political identity is treated as a Damascene conversion. Here, it seems, was the point all along. In contrast, O’Connor never loses sight of what Rowan Williams calls “the tragic within grace,” whereby the possibility of forgiveness is only glimpsed by way of “terrible moments of fatal longing” — to wit, the encounter between the Grandmother and the Misfit, in which they both desire a redemption that, alas, proves out of reach. For O’Connor, Williams adds, “grace is an excess that may make for significance or forgiveness, but needn’t.”

That this is obviously the case — that divine grace, whatever else it may be, is something that does not always overcome human sin — means that the artist owes it to herself and, indeed, to her readers to render it faithfully. This task is what Williams terms the “serious and costly dispossession of the artist in the work.” And it is on this point, finally, that McDonagh breaks from O’Connor. Three Billboards flirts with the grotesque and, to be sure, may be seen as a nod toward O’Connor’s legacy. But its humanistic-political horizon means that it never really leaves McDonagh’s hand: it offers a “message” from and about him to and for his audience. Where McDonagh pulls strings, O’Connor lets go.

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