Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – Guilt and Vengeance

DO NOT READ THIS BLOG UNLESS YOU HAVE SEEN THE FILM. The film is brilliant, but even more brilliant than most critics perceived.

How would you feel if you, a mother, had an argument with your teenage daughter, Angela – not exactly an archetypal angel – about whether to let her use your car to go out on a date on a Saturday evening? What if your daughter stormed out of the house saying she would walk and if she got raped it was your fault? What if you, as she fled out the door, called after her in anger that she should get raped for the foul language and insults hurled at you? What if you said this really to get back at her because you had just learned that she was exploring moving out and moving in with her father, Charlie, who used to beat you and whom you divorced when he ran off with a 19-year-old bimbo?

And then she was raped that evening. Not only raped, but murdered. Not only murdered, but raped while she lay dying. Not only murdered and raped, but her corpse burned. As much as you might live in a modern world and knew that, in this case, what happened was not a consequence of your words, the guilt you bore would go so deep and be so mutilating that you wanted, that you needed, to displace any responsibility onto another. What do you do with the ugly and agonizing pain, with the weight of that ton of guilt, with the deep burning embers of a searing grief? What better place to displace that responsibility but onto a club of cracker cops unable to find the murderer and rapist?

This is NOT a film about an enraged, unrelenting, uncompromising woman of steel, determined to ensure justice for the murder and rape of her child. It is not even a film about righteous vengeful fury. There is no righteousness whatsoever. And there certainly is no desire for justice. When Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) insists that she wants the government to set up a database with the DNA of every male so that it can be matched with the DNA on her daughter’s burnt corpse, it is not to obtain and exact justice, but to obtain and exact vengeance.

“Be sure and kill ‘em.” She is a hard-hearted woman so deeply frozen and dead on the inside and so full of fire and brimstone and steely edges on the outside, that we as the audience are sucked into applauding her devil take all attitude if only because the language of both sympathy and bureaucracy is so cold that we welcome, indeed applaud, someone who talks without thinking and fires away with little if no concern for or empathy with her targets. What magic when a writer/director can make such a detestable woman so tremendously likeable that we offer her our deepest sympathies. The chief target of her rage is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a man of affection and sensitive attachment, like his predecesor in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. He is intelligent, sensitive and conscientious rather than an indifferent oaf.

The film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, begins with a distraught but very determined mother bent on displacing that guilt in the ostensible pursuit of justice, with which we as viewers easily identify. Especially since her method of embarrassing the police is so public. She pays for putting up signs on three obsolete titular billboards to express her rage and frustration. The motive is unbeknownst to everyone, except her son who witnessed the altercation between mother and daughter. The billboards are used to displace that deep and very painful guilt. Critics who look at Mildred as “morally unimpeachable” are truly blind and deaf.  She is a harridan, immensely likeable and sympathetic, but still a vicious harridan.

Gradually as the film unfolds, we learn of the source and depth of that guilt. But we learn much more. For Ebbing is a town where the use of foul language is the norm, where the mistreatment of Blacks is the norm, especially by one police officer, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who has never been held responsible for his violent and outrageous behaviour. It just so happens that this violent cop is a mama’s boy, his mother is a virulent bitch and he is probably a repressed homosexual. He gradually wins our sympathy.

It is a town in which a happy family of a couple, a police chief (Willoughby), his wife and two children, play a game by a stream whereby the two young girls are required to fish for stuffed animals around the blanket on which they are sitting without leaving the blanket, while the parents go off for some nookie. But the instructions to the girls are delivered in the foulest language imaginable. As Mildred says at the beginning of the film when discussing the wording with her son on the proposed billboards, you may address your children in the foulest language, but on public billboards you “can’t say nothin’ defamatory.” It is a world of deep hypocrisy.

The sin permeating this town goes much deeper. When a priest, Father Montgomery, comes to the home of the distraught mother to try to persuade her to take down the billboards that are causing such stress to the popular police chief, the mother kicks him out, but not before reducing him to quivering silence by accusing him of complicity for doing nothing, just as he did nothing when his altar boy was seduced or raped by another priest. And in guilt, we sit silent in the theatre oblivious to the fact that this is a tale of raw vengeance and shame rather than of justice and guilt. The male secretive self-protective clubs of the town are now under attack by one enraged woman and her wild jeremiad. And the moral universe is inverted in McDonagh’s view when priests become priests and cops become cops because they want to do good, but are perceived now as sinister simply because of the costumes they wear, whether a clerical collar or a police uniform.

Unequivocally, Ebbing is a town in which sin has raged like a wildfire so that it permeates the language and behaviour of ordinary citizens and officers of the law alike. It is a town where the rule of impulse outweighs the rule of law. It is a town in which any efforts to purify the town had fallen by the wayside and became as obsolete as those billboards did when the new highway was built to bypass the old road. Bad behaviour had become the norm in this town in the heartland of America and sin is everywhere. The town is morally polluted. Not even the torching of the billboards and then the police station, and the scorching of the dumb and distasteful racist Constable Dixon, can even expurgate the sin. Dixon is, of course, the antithesis of Dixon of Dock Green (Jack Warner), the archetypal London bobby of the twenty-year long-running BBC series about a police officer full of common sense and empathy,

But that is just the background, the setting, very important but not the central theme of the movie. The town ceremonies and rituals and rites provide no opportunity any longer to expiate that sin, to cleanse the society of its moral pollution. Moral pollution has become the norm. There is no ritual whereby the town, its leaders and its ordinary citizens can acknowledge their responsibility for the sins. Everyone is complicit. Everyone “stands by.” For the movie is about guilt transmuted into shame, and sin transformed into vengeance.

Guilt goes deeper than sin. It is at the root of sin. It is the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions. At the end of the film, the most vicious police officer becomes a burnt offering and seems to repent (following the guiding note of his now deceased chief of police to learn about guilt, confession and love), owning up to one’s responsibilities and learning to love oneself and others as a good Christian should. It is clear that the members of the town, especially this police officer and his ardent accuser, the mother of the raped girl, go off to possibly murder a suspect who they now know could not have killed the daughter. The town and the people of the town have no rite, no ritual, no religious practice through which they can expiate their guilt and accept responsibility for what they did and what they do. For the fundamental moral code of the town has become displacement of responsibility. The town is awash not only in sin but in guilt. There is no act of reparation available to them. Instead, they get a rifle and ostensibly set out possibly to murder an innocent man. They will decide en route whether they will do it.

There is no redemption. There is no means of redemption. Guns and violence as the answer to problems have so permeated the value structure, have so displaced any real moral code, that the only answer to any action is revenge, not understanding and certainly not any acceptance of responsibility for what has taken place. There is no mechanism to sharpen any individual’s conscience. Paganism has returned to occupy central stage in the heartland of America. It is a Manichean world in which demonic forces seem to continually defeat any divine force. It is a world which has lost most of its humanity where each human, every male and every female, assumes responsibility for him or herself to ensure a divine presence on earth and the expulsion of the demonic.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is about the demonic taking control of a town in the heartland of America just as it has taken over the White House. Any rituals to contain and dispose of moral impurities have largely been sacrificed to cowardice, to ambition and to complicity. We have returned to an age in which a young teenage girl is raped, is murdered, is raped while dying, is offered as a burnt offering, but not to a divine order of a healthy, responsible life, but to a demonic order of guns and irresponsibility, of anarchy rather than the rule of law, of impulse rather than thoughtful consideration. It is a world in which the police station as the central symbol of the rule of law has been burnt to the ground. It is a world in which we who watch cheer this act of revenge and pseudo expiation, thrilled at the violence rather than discomfited by the phenomenal moral deterioration in our human moral code.

God is death. Humans must be wedded to life. The rituals of death, of sin and guilt need a place, a temple, where they can be disposed of. If a rabbi reminds me of the sensuousness, the incense and the smoke, the vibrancy and the flavours of a place of temple sacrifice, then that rabbi is totally out of touch with the function of the temple and the meaning of its absence. For without a temple, all responsibility rests on each and every one of us to be accountable for the commissions of sinful acts that thrust shards of guilt deep into our souls. The destroyed temple does not simply belong to a more primitive past in the sense of appealing to our basic sensuality as if it is simply an outdoor food market.

Why do we need to significantly reduce and limit a gun culture? When do we need blood prohibitions – when the police chief vomits up blood from his cancer, we must recognize the symbolic significance. After all, as McDormand says, “When you croak, the billboards won’t be as effective.” When the sadistic dentist is forced to drill into his own fingernail rather than into the not quite frozen tooth that needs removal, we get a glimpse of a place where inflicting pain has become a way of life and not a place where we try to make pain as painless as possible. So even the police chief’s self-sacrifice to minimize the pain to be inflicted on his family comes across as a positive but largely meaningless gesture, for the core meaning of what this hero did for the town is lost in a miasma of meaningless vengeance totally detached from justice.

Death is now totally intertwined with life instead of hived off and restricted so that life can thrive and blossom. The billboards ask a question intended to embarrass the police. But they are a sign of a society reduced to a shame rather than a guilt culture, a society in which out of helplessness and hopelessness conflicts are resolved by either coercion or shaming rather than by acknowledging guilt and assuming responsibility.

When a movie can put such a profound theological and social commentary before our eyes, and do so with humour and wit, when it so deliberately and cleverly misleads us into a failure to recognize who the hero and who the villain is, when a movie takes us into the bypassed rural routes of the heartland of America to unveil the miasma of sin and the absence of guilt and the rule of law that pervades the town, and when the acting by Frances McDormand , Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are all so brilliant, the writing and direction of Martin McDonagh so nuanced, the movie deserves every reward it received even though it appears that most commentators missed its religious and social profundity.

The land needs to be cleansed, especially the heartland Only then can positive mitzvot and proper ethics once again rule in the land of milk and honey.

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One comment on “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – Guilt and Vengeance

  1. Sam Izenberg says:

    Brilliant commentary.

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