Watching Three Billboards with Karen Swallow Prior (with Flannery O’Connor and Buffy the Vampire Slayer!)

Watching Three Billboards with Karen Swallow Prior (with Flannery O’Connor and Buffy the Vampire Slayer!) March 30, 2018

Some people are so interesting that anything is better if they are there to talk to you about it. Karen Swallow Prior watched the movie I wish I had seen when I went to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. 

At the very least she has a standing offer for a glass of orange juice at The College to talk about the movie. Her review is worth reading, considering, and savoring for its own sake. She made obvious what a fine motion picture Three Billboards might have been, but I am not persuaded was. With luck, she will respond to my complaints, my mind will be changed, and I will have something new to love.* In the end, I liked her review better than the motion picture.

The central claim of Professor Prior’s review is:

It’s counterintuitive to think of film, a primarily visual medium, as literary, but understanding and appreciating Three Billboards depends on understanding how words function in the film. Even with its phenomenal casting, superb acting, fine camera work, gorgeous soundtrack, and spectacles of violence, the film is ultimately—beginning with the title—a film about words.

One strong piece of confirming evidence that this is a movie about words are the three billboards themselves with their terse messages to Ebbing. So far, so good, but before moving on to the rest of her argument let me point out the heavy burden the film has.

A medium does not (totally) control the message. Most grown-up books are about words, but they do not have to be as graphic novelists demonstrate. A very good one like Doug TenNapel can make visuals that do as much or more than the words on the page.

Tarkovsky could make films about time and as a result even introduce boredom as an important element in his movies. This is very tricky as a long sequence to show tedium could simply be a bad bit of filmmaking retconned by smart fans as intentional or brilliant.

Second, Professor Prior has noted the brilliance of the acting and visuals. These elements are natural to film as we usually see it and are very powerfully done in the movie. Even if this is a film that intends to be about words, the director/writer has chosen to allow the more cinematic elements an overwhelming presence. In fact, the acting, the personifications, were the only award winners for the film. Let me suggest that if words were the thing, the powerful characters on the screen overwhelmed the screenplay, nominated for an award but not a winner. This was a correct choice by the Academy, because the acting was better than the (sometimes) jejune philosophy and (often) offensive stereotypes.

Professor Prior answers this criticism about the characters:

But Three Billboards isn’t realism; it’s larger than life and, at times, grotesquely so. This is not straight drama; it’s (very dark) comedy.

She notes that a main character is reading an O’Connor novel. There is no doubt that the film (like most dark comedies) is sometimes larger than life. It is certainly grotesque. Symbols abound. Yet the film also plays with Southern, rural, and racial stereotypes that are very real and have done great harm to people. This can be done properly in film as Spike Lee does, but Three Billboards fails.


The stereotypes, particularly of the African-American characters (supporting roles), are not big  enough or grotesque enough to avoid being merely offensive. The very best performances by the central actors are so good that realism ruins all. The very realistic sets, scenery and lush cinematography make Ebbing a place. . . too much of a place for a film that is about words.

Film is not naturally a word medium, so great care has to be taken to keep the visual, the auditory, and the acting from overwhelming the words. Flannery O’Connor works, because she is using words to write about words, so has much more control of her message. We see only what she shows us and if she moves quickly enough (and she always does) our imaginations do not fill in the scenes.

This is the difference between the horror the author of Judges “shows” and what would happen if the scenes in this book were filmed. Mel Gibson’s Passion is brilliant, but has been criticized for allowing the violence to overwhelm anything else in the film. Of course a crucifixion is violent, but the Gospels allow us to filter the details a bit and so focus on the centrality of redemption. Three Billboards is similarly violent.

Prior says of the many deaths in the film:

Three Billboards is obsessed with such bodies: dying, bleeding, burning, broken, bereaved bodies. As O’Connor wrote, “We’re all grotesque.”

The film’s visuals, like those of The Passion, border on violence porn, but unlike The Passion lack a strong enough central story to balance the graphic realism. On the whole, I think Gibson did succeed, but that Three Billboards fails, not because Gibson is necessarily a better filmmaker, but because his source material is well known and very powerful. The tale of the Christ is great plotting. As one movie said, the Gospel is The Greatest Story Ever Told. Gibson had more margin for error than an original screenplay like Three Billboards. 

I agree with Prior that the foul language is not by itself a deal breaker for the film, but disagree with why. I found the language realistic for both the kids and adults, given my experience of families of a certain sort. I know these people. As a result, the profanity added to the realism. It was not grotesque, but the way trapped, hurting people I know talk.

Finally, I am thankful for the many moments of grace in the film that Prior points out that deepened my appreciation of the film in general. However, here I must make a subjective judgment about some of the symbolism. Too often these moments of grace came with symbolism that struck me as portentous as the word portentous in a film review! Maybe I have been to too many student films, but the symbolism of the film seemed too on the nose.

Three Billboards is not a bad movie, obviously the acting is world class. However, if it is a film about words, then the best word for it is: inefficacy.



*This has happened to me before now. I owe my enjoyment of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the analysis of Professor Elizabeth Rambo. I even turned my hand to Buffy analysis.

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