Lapsed Catholic though he is, Martin McDonagh, the Irish (by way of London) playwright-turned-filmmaker loves to explore the interconnected themes of guilt, penance, and, most importantly, grace. This has been the case with most of his work to date, on stage and on screen, and never has it been more central than in his latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Although there’s little danger of his major thematic concerns being lost on Three Billboard’s viewers (McDonagh is not much for subtlety), they have, of late, taken a backseat to more immediately political concerns regarding the message and plotting of the film. This has caused something of a backlash against what, in the months leading up to its release, had been considered a lock for Oscar contention. As things now stand, Three Billboards has proven one the more divisive films of the year.
The film — which revolves around an ever-escalating war of attrition between Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), the mother of a murdered teenager, and her small town’s inept police force — has been met with controversy mainly as result of the depiction of said police force, in particular the character of Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
Openly racist, prone to anger, and with a history of past abuse (he’s known to have once tortured a black suspect in his custody), Dixon begins the movie as a reprehensible monster. Despite the doofus-y charm that Rockwell gives to the character, we can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance, which he does during the ratcheting violence of the film’s second act.
Where McDonagh seems to lose many viewers is in the film’s last act (SPOILERS AHEAD), which focuses as much — if not more so — on a convalescing Dixon as it does Mildred, so that, by its conclusion, the story feels as though it belongs to both of them equally. While the last line of the movie is meant to invoke a sense of lingering moral ambiguity, the overall shape of Dixon’s arc is obviously one of redemption.
Many viewers are unwilling to bend along with this arc. At this point in time in America, there is no more emotionally fraught issue than the intersection of systemic racism and police abuse. Not all audiences are willing to bend with a redemptive arc that asks them to empathize with violent racist cops, no matter how much heavy lifting McDonagh and Rockwell do to get them to point where that seems a possibility.
(It doesn’t help that the black characters within Three Billboards exist mostly on the periphery. This seems by design — McDonagh is not shying away from the reality of current race relations, but neither is he making a film about them. It’s an important distinction to recognize, but one that’s not likely to sway those who feel that the characters of color are being used as props.)
Such criticisms are entirely understandable, even fair. If there is one problem with them, though, it’s that as an audience, we have a tendency equate redemption with absolution. Throughout his career, McDonagh has chosen to center his work around seemingly unforgivable protagonists, such as the literal child killers in his debut film In Bruges (2008), as well as his most lauded play, The Pillowman (2003).
But his end game has never been about bringing these lost souls to a place of absolution and forgiveness, but about bringing them to a brutal reckoning with grace, a reckoning that may well require them to pass through literal flames.
In this, McDonagh takes his cue from the preeminent American writer of, as she herself described it, “Christian Realism”: Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). While anyone familiar with McDonagh’s past work might have made such a connection, in Three Billboards he makes it so obvious that he might as well have plastered it on one of the titular billboards. (In the film’s second scene we are introduced to a character reading O’Connor’s most famous work, A Good Man Is Hard To Find.)
Although she is known primarily for her aesthetic of “Southern Grotesque” (a term she hated), O’Connor’s main concerns were spiritual. While she had little love for the actual institution of Roman Catholicism (a sentiment shared by McDonagh, who saves the most venomous castigation in Three Billboards for the Church), she was nonetheless a devout believer, and she gave expression to that belief through darkly funny and often brutally violent stories which, unlike most religious literature of the time (as well as today), was free of didacticism and sentimentality.
In one of her correspondences, O’Connor wrote of her depiction of grace: “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
She wasn’t interested in salvation as much as she was consciousness. Her characters (usually backwards Southern Protestants or pretentious atheists) are brought to moments of epiphany only at the point of pain, disfigurement, mania, suicide, and murder. For her, divine intervention didn’t come to those who got down on their knees and prayed to God for answers, but to those who stood upon a soapbox and cursed his name to the sky. And it didn’t come in the form of a white dove or a brightly shining rainbow, but in the bullet from a convict’s gun, or impalement at the horn of a wild bull.
(It should be noted that, for as religious as she was, O’Connor was also openly progressive in her views on race, views that she inserted throughout her stories, though, like McDonagh does in Three Billboards, she kept them mostly in the background.)
This is very clearly the territory in which Three Billboards is operating. It may, in fact, be the closest cinematic equivalent we have to O’Connor, other than Wise Blood (1971), John Huston’s faithful adaptation of her debut novel, which remains the only feature-length film to be made from any of her works.
(A solid case could be made for Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant , which charts a doomed soul’s path toward spiritual grace by way of suffering and humiliation, but as the film’s story takes place in the grimy back alleys and high rises of the Bronx, and is devoid of anything resembling humor or irony, it recalls O’Connor only in theme, and not aesthetic.)
Putting Three Billboards in the context of O’Connor’s Christian realist tradition probably won’t do much to resolve the issues with which many have voiced frustration, but it might lead them to reconsider its overall meaning.
In a speech O’Connor gave regarding the story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” she talked about what, for her, made a story work:
“Some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which vindicates where the real heart of the story lies… It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.”
When considering the character arcs within Three Billboards — not just Dixon’s, but especially his — it would be worth considering this quote. Too often we expect allegory in place of mystery, just as we too often confuse grace with forgiveness.
Three Billboards may indeed be, in the end, a copout in regards to what it says about America right now. But it is a story that, like the character of Dixon, is touched by enough real grace that, without necessarily finding salvation, earns at least some level of vindication.
Zach Vasquez lives in Los Angeles, where anyone can be forgiven for anything.