A movie about which I have intensely mixed feelings! A lot of these thoughts were formed in conversation with Charles Lehman, for which I am grateful.
# Early on, we see a guy reading Flannery O’Connor and so we can guess that this violent story will show us a world somehow mangled, misfired. And my favorite thing about the film is structural: It’s about a series of attempts to get justice which kind of ricochet off their intended targets and end up bringing either justice or mercy (or the hope of justice) to some totally different situation. Human efforts don’t achieve their ends, but that doesn’t make them pointless or ineffective. Their effects are startlingly powerful–they just take place far away from where you’d expect.
# The story starts when grieving mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand doing her gritty thing) buys three billboards on a deserted stretch of rural road. The billboards will go up at Easter (“That’s perfect”) and they will say, in giant letters against a lurid red background, RAPED WHILE DYING/AND STILL NO ARRESTS?/HOW COME, SHERIFF WILLOUGHBY?
Charles called this attempt to get justice for her daughter’s murder an act of “civil disobedience” and that phrase gets at a big part of what’s going on in the movie. Because what Mildred does is legal–and yet many people in the town treat it as if it’s a crime. She’s harassed and threatened, her friends and allies are arrested and brutally beaten, the public provision of justice has completely broken down.
The one cop who does not treat the billboards as an attack is the sheriff himself (Woody Harrelson). In one of the movie’s many twists, he comes to Mildred and basically admits defeat. He even pays for the billboards to stay up (in a weird mercy-as-punishment twist which I especially loved). They have this conversation where Mildred is like, “Pay your debts and do your duty!”, and he says, “I have tried, and I can’t,” and it’s that admission which begins to break up the miles-thick ice of mistrust and contempt in which the whole town is locked.
# On one level this is a movie about contempt, which you guys may have noticed is one of my obsessions. Three Billboards shows contempt as painfully understandable defense strategy, without ever making it actually defensible.
# Part of how contempt shapes the movie–and I’m wandering, but I’ll get back to the justice thing in a moment–is that we get two characters who are kinda dumb, not sharp or competent, who nonetheless understand things which are close to the movie’s heart. This is a character type I always fall for tbh. One of these characters is Penelope, the young girlfriend of Mildred’s ex-husband. She says something the movie proves to be pretty obviously true, which she got off a bookmark: “Violence begets more violence.” And it’s played for laughs: “Penelope said ‘begets’?”, one of the film’s great lines. But she says it because she, unlike a lot of people here, is able to recognize its truth.
The other character of this type is the hapless dumb racist thug cop (Sam Rockwell, mostly selling a hard character to sell) whose story is as central to the film as Mildred’s. He’s a guy for whom contempt might even be justified if contempt could ever be justified. He’s the thug as schlemiel: dominated by his crass mom, hopeless in an alcoholic way which I recognized, willing to suffer intensely to transform his life and bring justice as soon as somebody in authority tells him he’s capable of change. He suffers quite a bit of redemptive violence and is the object of more than one of the movie’s acts of forgiveness.
# Okay, here we get into the problems. Three Billboards has all kinds of weird glitches and one huge misstep. There are things which just seem out of place–the scene with the priest is weird, even though it does work to show the festering anger, judgment, and contempt which shape the town. There are tone shifts which undercut the movie’s characterization–the first time the thug cop talks about “people-of-color torturing” it seems to be a savage bit of semi-self-aware gallows humor, which I do in fact buy from this slow junkyard dog of a man, but then later it seems like he seriously thinks the problem with his brutality was his language? There are moments when he’s dumb in a cartoon way that goes for the cheap laugh over the painful laugh.
Or take the reason for Mildred Hayes’s furious grief. She feels guilty about her daughter’s horrifying death–of course she does, that’s how anyone would feel. But the film doesn’t trust us to accept that anybody would feel that way. The movie has her feel guilty because she literally, exactly in these words told her daughter to go walk in that field and get raped and murdered, and then she did!!!!!, and it’s just all so on-the-nose and unnecessary. It’s chintzy.
# The huge, sad and sordid problem with the movie is that racism and black people are ciphers in an alphabet used to talk solely about the sins and redemptions of white people. Racism is a theme the movie insists on grappling with but it just cannot do it well, because the black characters aren’t people. They are plot furniture who might as well blink out of existence as soon as they’ve performed their role in the moral drama of the white folk.
Matt Zoller Seitz summarized some of what’s going on here on twitter: “From responses I can see that there’s a major split between people who think this movie is a political, sociological failure and those who think it’s a success in theological/karmic ones.” And you guys know already that I would add that the political failure to use racism as more than a macguffin is also a theological failure. Anyway, Seitz’s whole thread is worth reading.
# The ending acts like an unresolved ending, one of those things where the filmmakers aren’t willing to commit and pick a side, which I a million percent hate. But Charles argued, and I think this is right, that the ending does take a stand: in favor of private deliberation, a private search for justice rather than a public monopoly on it. The characters’ uncertainty (he said, & I agree) is “a feature of the actual pursuit of justice (the distance b/t human justice and capital-J Justice, if you’re feeling platonist).”
Throughout the film we see that private and public/official justice are separate processes which nonetheless interpenetrate–the boundaries between public and private are porous. People want and need public justice, in part because public justice says that your life has value even if nobody else recognizes it–even if you don’t have an avenging mother to take up your cause. Three Billboards is a movie about two different kinds of failure of public justice: the normal human failure where we can’t accomplish what we need to do, and the sinful failure where we don’t even try to acknowledge and fulfill our duties. The attempt to rectify the first failure provokes instead a rectification of the second.
# There’s a suicide-note scene which so perfectly replicates actual arguments actual suicidal people make in their heads that my gut reaction is that it’s evil and shouldn’t have been filmed. Charles pointed out that I tend to be unusually sensitive to suicide scenes (as I’m unusually numb to violence and sexual perversity) and I realize that there’s a later, quite powerful scene in which the movie shows you that these justifications for suicide are false. I basically don’t ever want to be in a theater hearing heroic lies about how suicide is “bravery.” (The note’s author means that it’s charity, but Americans don’t talk about charity so he uses this much less girly word.) But maybe to most audiences the suicide scene plays as so horrifying that you already get that the justifications for it are awful even from within the note’s own premises.
# The music is fantastic. The look of it is great, although I do feel like somebody got an idea in his head that he wanted to see tough, chewed-up Frances McDormand in a jumpsuit so we get a whole lot of that.