‘Three Billboards’ is a Deeply Important Prestige Picture (some minor spoilers)

Today, I went and saw Martin McDonagh’s third feature film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. McDonagh’s films take some time to digest (his initial feature went from a film I liked to one I consider a masterpiece over a period of years), but after having had an afternoon to think about it, Three Billboards has solidified in my mind as not only a great film but an important statement on hatred and violence, subtly masked in layers of black comedy.

In the wake of the film’s sweeping victory at the Golden Globes, I’ve noted an uptick in the inevitable backlash against the film (which will only get worse as we enter the Oscar race). The film has specifically come under fire for its perspective on race and racism on the police force. I think these criticisms miss the movies overtly tolerant message which in turn does a disservice to a hugely compelling film. As such I’d like to lay out my case for Three Billboards. Some spoilers will follow, but nothing gigantic.

McDonagh is, to me, the more intelligent cousin to Quentin Tarantino. Whereas Tarantino’s films present a dazzling veneer of playwright-like dialogue over a hollow core, McDonagh puts his dialogue prowess on display as a way to deliver meditations on grief and philosophy. As such, Three Billboards is a talky, complicated film with a large cast and sprawling story that defies expectations (it had me guessing at where it was going until the final scene).

The plot follows Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, rawly compelling) as her frustration at the unsolved rape/murder of her daughter drives her to put up three signs condemning the local police chief (Woody Harrelson). This declaration of war engenders a wide variety of reactions including fury from the dim-witted, nasty police deputy Jason Dixon played by Same Rockwell. Dixon, whose past includes accusations of a racially motivated torture, gets entwined in the story in some surprising and significant ways as the plot moves on. 

Minor Spoilers

By the end of the film, Dixon has not been redeemed exactly but has paid brutally for some of his mistakes and taken the first tentative steps towards being a better person.

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In the film, each character is treated with compassion and generosity. These characters include a wife-beater, an arsonist, a drunk, and yes, a racist bully of a cop. Many have been offended by the film’s implication that Rockwell’s character is deserving of any sympathy or in any way redeemed by the events of the film. This to me, is a gigantic mistake, first in terms of film-understanding and second in terms of compassion. The film is not in any way about race, it just happens that racism is used as a means of getting across the way in which Dixon’s fundamental hatred and immorality manifest. The movie makes no statement on race or racism, instead contenting itself to broader subject of hatred and violence (one scene points out overtly that Dixon is a brute to people of all races). The message of the film is that hatred, even aimed at those most deserving of hate (racist cops, rapists, and wife-beaters) can only beget more hatred in turn. As such, to break this cycle of escalating violence and anger, someone needs to let hatred go and take a higher road.

This brings us to the subject of compassion. The movie never once says that Dixon’s actions are justified (they aren’t, they’re brutal and nasty, the acts of a coward and monster). Instead it makes the case that there is potential, even in very bad people, for change. We aren’t asked to forgive Dixon so much as understand that he is a human being and has the same capacity as any other human being. The same treatment is given to Mildred, a woman whose grief at the loss of her daughter has driven her to such hate-filled extremes that she’s destroying the few human connections that remain to her. In both her story and Dixon’s (which are fundamentally parallel), the eventual conclusion is that hatred is a poison that must be abandoned before it destroys everything in its path. As such, the movie extends not sympathy exactly, but a sense of understanding and humanity that allows you to understand its complex cast.

I would agree with the critics of the film that what Dixon goes through in the film isn’t enough to make what he has done alright. But I would disagree with the unspoken implication that it’s not alright to sympathize with someone who is guilty of so heinous a crime. In many ways, I think McDonagh’s film is brave to insist, fervently, that if we are to grow as people, we must extend compassion wherever it’s needed.

All this is not to say the film is without flaws of course (a few characters aren’t given enough time to feel like more than minor plot points, and Abby Cornish feels miscast), but it is a masterful work advocating peace and hope in a manor that made even my cynical side stop and watch. It’s become popular to decry how awful the last few years have supposedly been (more a symptom of people’s mindset than any actual events), and this film is to me the perfect response–a keenly realized depiction of how difficult and necessary growth really is.

2017 has been an interesting year of film with, unfortunately, not that many that I connected with deeply. But it strikes me that the deeply challenging, divisive, and excellent Three Billboards is the perfect way to close out the year as it has a little of everything: some dark comedy (one scene’s repeated use of the word ‘fuckhead’ is gut-bustingly good), some emotional material (I teared up for perhaps the only time this year), a complex, fully-realized story, and a message that stays with you after the final credits roll. It won’t be for everyone, but I strongly hope that the message of its misconstrued racisms doesn’t become its key identifier. I saw one person claiming it was this year’s version of “Crash”, and I think we can all agree, that’s far, far too harsh.