To be a little simplistic, Martin McDonagh’s films tend to be preoccupied with cycles of violence, in which parties retaliate against each other for the hurts they suffer, drawing others into this cycle until somebody tries to end it by accepting the hurt done to him, or, indeed, turning that violence upon himself. In Bruges revolves around a hitman who finds absolution when he tells his boss that he’s not going to fight anymore, though it means his boss may kill him, and accepts death so that he might save his friend. Seven Psychopaths includes, among other examples, a Buddhist monk who decides it better to protest the war in his country by self-immolation because it might lead to change, instead of hating the American soldiers who massacred his family. And now, in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh returns to this theme.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri centers on Mildred Hayes, whose daughter Angela was raped and murdered several months before the beginning of the film. The police have not yet made an arrest, so Mildred rents the titular three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri to demand answers. These billboards cause no small controversy in Ebbing, where the police are already under various pressures, and “war” breaks out between Mildred, the police, her family, and other citizens.
McDonagh proves to be a master of manipulating the audience’s expectations and sympathies, especially those of his fans. For example, those familiar with In Bruges will, when Mildred picks up a wine bottle in a restaurant and walks towards her estranged husband, expect violence to be imminent, but McDonagh undercuts his fans’ expectations when she places the bottle on his table. More significantly, however, the audience’s sympathies are naturally with Mildred, a single mother whose husband Charlie has left her for a nineteen-year-old girl, whose daughter has been murdered, and whose teenaged son rebels against her. She is the consummate underdog taking on the Man and the corrupt police. We want to see Mildred burn everything down so that she can find justice; she is on a righteous crusade. And so, when an insensitive priest, Fr. Montgomery, arrives at her house, telling her that the town sympathizes with her because of her daughter, but is also dead set against the billboards, he seems to have clearly aligned himself on the side of injustice against Mildred.
That early scene with Fr. Montgomery turns out to be pivotal, though he never appears again. In the same way that McDonagh calls back to his own earlier films, he also alludes to his brother John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary. It’s worth noting that Calvary’s central conceit, a murder threat made to a priest in a confessional, is an homage to a scene in In Bruges in which a priest is shot in a confessional (so the brothers are certainly in cinematic conversation with each other when it comes to the portrayal of priests). John Michael McDonagh says that the inspiration for Calvary came about
when Brendan [Gleeson] and I talked about how terrible it must be for someone to walk down the street and because of what you’re wearing you’re immediately judged in a sinister way. Most priests become priests because they want to do good but they’re not perceived that way anymore. The moral universe has been turned upside down. When we initially discussed it, I assumed there would be more clichéd films coming out dealing with bad priests. I thought, let’s get our film out first about a good priest and all those other films about bad priests can come after.
This is not to explain one movie by citing what the director’s brother says about a different movie (that would at best a tenuous argument), but simply to explore just what Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri imports through its allusions. The priest in Calvary is a man who must absorb the scorn suspicion of his parish, especially in the wake of sexual abuse of children by clergy, and the priest in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is similar.
Mildred accuses Fr. Montgomery of being guilty by association for sexual abuse of children by clerics, though he knew nothing of it, and claims this allows her to dismiss anything he has to say. At first, an audience sympathetic to Mildred, the underdog taking on corrupt institutions, is likely to also be sympathetic with Mildred’s jeremiad against the priest. However, Mildred applies this standard selectively at best; she does not hold Willoughby guilty for Officer Dixon’s penchant for torturing black suspects in custody, despite the fact that Willoughby clearly knows about it; what she says to the priest smacks of an after-the-fact excuse for her own rank prejudice. Even his name evokes memories of Montgomery Clift, the actor who portrayed a falsely accused priest in Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess. As such, Fr. Montgomery bears the weight of a history of cinematic priests plagued by others’ sins.
Ultimately, the priest’s warning about the billboard is justified, and he does prove to have moral authority because of his silence. Mildred does not find justice, least of all because of anything the billboards prompted. Police Chief Willoughby explains the case as one that, if it is solved, will be solved through sheer dumb luck, by overhearing something in a bar or a prison. The billboards only serve to raise tensions in the town, to set police officers against innocent third parties, and the townspeople against Mildred. Her friends are arrested on trumped-up charges, she drills a hole in the dentist, Dixon goes on a rampage through the advertising office and throws Red the manager out the window, the signs are burned down (in another nod to Calvary– this time referencing the scene in which the church burns down), she burns down the police station, and Willoughby’s suicide is (wrongly) attributed to her campaign. The priest might not be sympathetic to a mainstream audience, but he’s right, and when Mildred impugns him, he remains silent. He does not protest his innocence but accepts this verbal assault. He does not retaliate but absorbs the slur. It’s a much more prosaic self-sacrifice than McDonagh often focuses on. This becomes the model for the rest of the film, such as when Dixon overhears what he believes to be a description of Angela’s murder in a bar and endures a brutal beating in order to obtain a DNA sample of the man he thinks might be the killer. He accepts violence done to himself in order to solve the crime and to gain some measure of redemption for his sins by putting his interests last.
Serve Your Enemies
Along these lines, when Mildred visits the advertising office to rent the billboards, Red is reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” This story, of course, climaxes with a grandmother being confronted with an escaped criminal called the Misfit aiming a gun at her. At that moment, she must learn to shed her hypocrisies and vanities in order to love the man who is pointing a gun at her, who is killing her family, and who is about to kill her. She needs to say that he is one of her own children, even as her own children are being killed, in order to be truly good and to have a moment of grace. Her recognition of some strange shared humanity with the Misfit is present in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Willoughby arrests Mildred for assaulting the dentist, but in the interrogation room, their tense back-and-forth soon becomes friendly (if acerbic) banter. The cycle of violence can’t continue when everybody involved is having fun with each other, and indeed, Willoughby pays to keep the billboards up another month, though they hold him personally responsible for the fact that the murder has not been solved, because he respects Mildred, thinks that they were a good move, and wants to give her a hard time after he has died. Later, Dixon and Red meet each other in the hospital and Red, seeing his attacker covered in bandages, gives him orange juice. Not only does Red forgive his attacker, though it is hard, he serves the one who sinned against him. Mildred tells Charlie to treat Penelope, the nineteen-year-old for whom he has left Mildred, and whom Mildred insults with regularity, well. All of these characters must swallow their pride, forgive their enemies, and even serve their enemies.
Sacrifice, not Suicide
This acceptance of violence done to oneself, however, can go too far. Willoughby, dying of cancer, does more than simply accept the violence done to him, in that he kills himself, leaving behind his wife Anne and two little girls. He frames this as sparing his family his suffering, but Anne is devastated. She had love to give him in these last days they had left, but now she cannot give it to him. She has been hurt by the violence her husband has done to himself, and the only person she can lash out against is Mildred because Mildred caused conflict with Willoughby shortly before his suicide. Even though Willoughby’s violence is self-directed, it is not self-contained. His suicide ramifies beyond himself, and his family is drawn into that cycle of violence. Like Mildred, Anne has lost a loved one and there is nobody to punish, nobody against whom she can direct her fury.
In McDonagh’s world, self-sacrificial acceptance of violence can break off the cycle that begets more anger, but it must be in response to violence and to one’s enemies. If this sacrifice is actually romanticized martyrdom for the sake of romanticized martyrdom, as in Willoughby’s case, it starts a whole new cycle, and Willoughby abandons Anne, so she must find a way to resolve the cycle of violence in which he has implicated her, and without a wrongdoer to whom she can offer tangible forgiveness or service. His attempt to go out with “dignity” is short-sighted.
Hidden from the Wise, Revealed to Children
Ultimately, it is not the wise and the well-loved who know that the violence must end. Dixon says that you have to be good at English in order to find success, but much of the wisdom in the movie comes from the silent, such as the reviled Fr. Montgomery who prophetically notes that the billboards cause more tension than they solve and who gives the most humble and banal example of self-sacrifice, or the naïve, like Penelope. Penelope, who is a complete and utter ditz and who, when not working in manure, allegedly smells like it, is the person who notes that anger begets more anger. She read that on a bookmark when she was reading a book about polo (or was it polio?), and nobody can believe that she actually used the word “begets,” but she still says it, despite Mildred’s constant mockery.
There is also wisdom in cliché and banality. Willoughby tells Dixon that Dixon will not become a good detective until he can love, though it sounds silly. Dixon, whose tenure as a police officer is one long power trip, does not begin to put in good work until after he is fired, loses his badge and gun which are the signs of his power, and is beaten to a pulp. Pope Francis says that the “humble one is that man, that woman who is capable of enduring humiliations,” and along these lines, Dixon needs to be humiliated and humbled. McDonagh’s films are justly recognized for their incredible dexterity with language (and his similarly-talented brother’s Calvary is an argument against the nihilism of constant irony, finding hope in the sincerity of the sacramental language of forgiveness), but in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, he undercuts his talent as a writer, as in Seven Psychopaths where all the talent in the world can’t purge sadness, and so the most profound truths are to be found in clichés and on bookmarks, but not angry billboards.
The Scandal of Forgiveness
Martin McDonagh is infamous for shocking his audience with brutal violence, gleeful political incorrectness, and profanity, and all of these are present in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. None of these things are the most shocking things about the film. Instead, it’s the idea that we must not only forgive, but even serve our enemies. Take one critic, who says that he “will admit concern in this current environment about how much sympathy we should have for a guy like [Dixon]… Still, McDonagh… makes movies for folks who can deal with nuance, and I won’t hold complexity against a movie just because of the absurd period in which we live.” Indeed. This critic, I think, doesn’t quite see or want to embrace the point that forgiveness is shocking, hard, and cries out against our every instinct to seek blood. ‘Twas ever thus.