Reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor's fiction, the Oscar-nominated film explores our capacity for change and forgiveness.
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[Ed.: NOTE that this article contains spoilers.]
Early in Martin McDonagh’s captivating film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, one of the characters, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) is seen reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find. It is the beginning of an O’Connor-esque tale about grace and the grotesque, love and hate, healing and grief. Although the reference to Flannery O’Connor is brief, it is hard to imagine how this story, written and directed by McDonagh (In Bruges), was not influenced by O’Connor’s sense of grace rising from the most heinous examples of human iniquity. It is hard to watch this movie and not think of Francis Tarwater, the 14-year-old character of O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear It Away, “His black eyes, glassy and still, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus.” Indeed, the shadow of Jesus, seems always to be in the background of this dark, intense, and sometimes humorous film.
As the film begins, we meet Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) arranging to rent three (is three just a coincidence here?) crumbling billboards with the messages: “Raped While Dying, “Still No Arrests?” And finally, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” The viewer is quickly drawn into the story of a heinous rape and a bitter, angry, grief-stricken mother determined to find her daughter’s murderer. She emerges as character whose goodness has been disfigured by grief, anger, and cruelty. Her ex-husband deals with the death of their daughter in his own way by taking up with a 19-year-old girl. As the story unfolds, we are introduced to multiple examples of a sinful human nature, racism, cruelty, and the flaws of those in whom we place our trust: the police, the military, and even the clergy.
Woody Harrelson turns in a terrific performance as Chief William Willoughby, whom Mildred blames for not doing enough to find her daughter’s killer. He is the chief of a local police department staffed by the likes of Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who is a mean, insecure racist whom we learn has tortured a black prisoner. Sam Rockwell does an amazing job of playing the character of Dixon in all his meanness and ultimately his moment of conversion. Willoughby emerges as a flawed but deeply sympathetic character who is ultimately responsible for a Dixon’s epiphany moment of self-awareness and conversion. Dixon’s conversion doesn’t take place until he is severely burned and disfigured by a fire in the police station which was started by Mildred, not knowing he was in the building. Fire is a central symbol of purification that McDonagh employs in the film.
Willoughby, as he finds himself near death due to a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, is prompted to write heartfelt letters to his wife, to Mildred, and to Dixon. The sense of love expressed in these letters becomes the catalyst for an eventual transformation in the lives of Mildred and Dixon. In his letter to Dixon, he writes:
Because through love comes calm, and through calm comes thought. And you need thought to detect stuff sometimes, Jason. It’s kinda all you need. You don’t even need a gun. And you definitely don’t need hate. Hate never solved nothing, but calm did. And thought did. Try it. Try it just for a change. No one’ll think you’re gay. And if they do, arrest ’em for homophobia! Won’t they be surprised! Good luck to you, Jason. You’re a decent man, and yeah you’ve had a run of bad luck, but things are gonna change for you. I can feel it.
It’s this letter that ultimately enables Dixon to turn his life around in what can only be called a moment of grace. In one of the most touching scenes in the film Mildred admits to Dixon that she started the fire that so disfigured him. He replies to her with a wry smile, “Well who else would it have been?” Probably the most despicable and unsympathetic characters in the movie offers an unmistakably tender message of forgiveness. It represents the triumph of mercy over hatred.
A major theme of this R-rated film is the capacity for change and forgiveness that occurs in a story that simultaneously brings out the worst and best of human nature. It does so in a way that is reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, that is featured at the beginning of the film. In his analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, Michael Meers Bruner (In the Bleeding, Stinking, Mad Shadow of Jesus) suggests that her work represents the subversion of the transcendental attributes of truth, goodness, and beauty into terrible beauty, violent goodness, and foolish truth of God. This is precisely what we see happen in the unfolding of Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and its memorable characters.
Can viewing a film be the occasion of a divine encounter, a moment of grace? Robert Johnston in his text, Reel Spirituality, suggests that this is indeed the case because of the power of film. Three Boards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, like the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, can indeed be that kind of film for the attentive viewer. In the midst of the heinous and the grotesque the grace and mercy of God emerge victorious. It is a terrible beauty, a violent goodness, and the foolish truth of God. It makes for worthwhile Lenten meditation.