Watching ‘Three Billboards’ with Flannery O’Connor

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I tell students in my literature classes to pay attention to titles, and the title of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—written and directed by the acclaimed Martin McDonagh (In Bruges)—is more than just a memorable, quirky-sounding title. The title points viewers to the literary nature of the film. Halfway through watching it, my husband asked me who I thought committed the unsolved rape-murder the story revolves around.

“I don’t think the story is about who did it,” I answered. “It’s about the billboards.” In the end, I was right.

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.

Importance of Words

The story opens with main character Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for the role) driving toward the three billboards, marked with faded fragments of ads placed years ago. We make out the word “ebb” on one, “your life” on another, and then the faded picture of a baby. Mildred will pay a ransom to adorn the three signs with her own words, angry words seeking justice for her daughter’s horrific death. These words will serve as a catalyst that brings down the power structures of the town—but with that fall comes the hope for redemption. Indeed, the words are mounted on the billboards the following Sunday: Easter.

The advertising man who rents Mildred the billboard space is introduced as he is reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, an essential early cue for how we are to “read” the entire film. Those who assess the film based on the literal level of plot and characterization are likely to find it unsatisfactory (as the reviewer at The New Yorker does). 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.

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.

A narrative punctuated by scenes of brutal violence is unlikely fodder for comedy, but comedy this is—complete with countless laugh-out-loud lines, signifiers reminding us that right and wrong still exist (for all comedy involves departure from some rule). Classical comedy is characterized by the use of vulgar (common) language and low characters, as well as an emphasis on the animal, physical aspect of human nature, including physical violence (the origins of slapstick). Accordingly, profanities are spouted by every character in Three Billboards (including Mildred’s teenaged children), flowing as naturally and effortlessly as water from a fountain. The curses are so frequent that they lose all power of emphasis and passion. The language is thus not gratuitous—it’s part of the point, for words used in such a way are as drained of meaning as a world that lacks God.

Such exaggeration reflects a famous point made by O’Connor in explaining her approach to writing fiction:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

We Are All Ebbing

Ebbing is a Midwestern town filled with “startling figures,” people distorted by hatred: hatred of minorities, the disabled, family members, and self. Some viewers decry the film’s lack of tidying up all these strains of hatred in an explicit way. Even more decry what they see as a stereotypical, mocking portrayal of the people who occupy America’s flyover country. But again, a page from O’Connor sheds light on how such caricatures should be understood:

When you write about backwoods prophets, it is very difficult to get across to the modern reader that you take these people seriously, that you are not making fun of them, but that their concerns are your own and, in your judgment, central to human life.

The film takes these people seriously, not as “them” but as “us.” And the concerns of Ebbing, Missouri, are central to human life, despite their exaggerated depiction.

There is no actual Missouri town named Ebbing, so the word choice is notable. The theme of the film is how we are all ebbing. Told that her nemesis, police chief Bill Willoughby (played superbly by Woody Harrelson) is dying, Mildred responds, flatly, “We are all [expletive] dying.” In another scene, Willoughby describes poignantly the anguish of living in a “weakened body” that “ebbs away.” Three Billboards is obsessed with such bodies: dying, bleeding, burning, broken, bereaved bodies. As O’Connor wrote, “We’re all grotesque.”

Justice and Redemption

From the three billboards clustered together outside of town (evoking the crosses that dot similar spots in rural locales), to the story’s opening at Easter, to the stomach-churning piercing of a man’s hand, to the man whose name is painted on the billboard/cross paying its bill, to the offer of a drink from one man to his enemy—the film is filled with biblical symbols, images, and words that point to the human desire for justice. It’s a desire that reflects the very image of God—the source of all justice—in us.

The film is filled with biblical symbols, images, and words that point to the human desire for justice. It’s a desire that reflects the very image of God—the source of all justice—in us.

This theme is literally spelled out when Chief Willoughby, who symbolizes justice in the town (or rather its lack), dies. His blood pours out over the note he has left behind, leaving visible only the words “THE JUST.” This death is the turning point in the film, and the letters he leaves behind are the turning points that lead their recipients to redemption.

Moments of Grace

Like the grandmother in her redemptive moment in O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (visually referenced, as previously mentioned, early in the film), Willoughby tries to convince the most wicked character in the story—the disgraced, slow-witted, racist cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, who also won an Oscar for the film)—that “deep down, you’re a decent man.” In a powerful (posthumous) monologue, Willoughby tells Jason:

I do think you’re too angry, though, and I know it’s all since your dad died and you had to go look after your mom and all, but as long as you hold on to so much hate, then I don’t think you’re ever going to become what I know you want to become—a detective. Cause you know what you need to become a detective? And I know you’re gonna wince when I say this, but what you need to become a detective is love. 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.

Upon receiving these words, Jason’s transformation begins—and he is baptized by fire.

Mildred’s moment of grace comes through words, too, words delivered by a wise fool (discovered in a book on a bookmark) in one of the film’s most humorous—and powerful—scenes. The film’s ending, which might otherwise be seen as ambiguous or unresolved, is, in fact, consummate when read in light of these words: “Anger begets greater anger.”

These words convey the entire message of the film. Viewers seeing in Mildred—who wears Rosie the Riveter coveralls, throws firebombs, and kicks male and female crotches alike—a feminist firebrand perfect for the #MeToo moment miss the point: because of her anger, Mildred’s life is ebbing away. Only when she allows herself to be released from her anger—even as she pursues justice—can she be redeemed.

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