Why "Three Billboards…" is a Far Better Film Than You Thought it Was
Any article that starts with the phrase “In this day and age…” is automatically suspect.
“In this day and age…” we have been so bombarded with information and opinions (both real and fake, scientific and spun) that society craves nothing more than a simplistic narrative.
We want good guys and bad guys. We want a definitive sense of a moral high ground. We want to be told that we're correct in assuming that anyone who voted for Trump is a racist mouth breather. That anyone who voted for Hillary betrayed Bernie. That it is impossible for a senator to both fight aggressively for women's rights to equality and make a tasteless boob-grabbing joke.
Our popular culture reflects that desire.
Fans of the simplistic Good vs. Evil narrative balked at the complexity of the latest Star Wars. The Pit of Forced Stupidity and Dumbed Down Asshattery known as social media practically requires the propaganda of WWII (when the Japanese were routinely portrayed as rats) effectively boiling every issue down to the reductive language of the Puritans. #BlackLivesMatters is taken so literally that people feel the need to create another hashtag #AllLivesMatter because they can't handle the nuance and complexity of the argument. #MeToo suddenly devolves into an argument that men are predators and women are victims without pausing for a moment to reflect on shades of gray.
When Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri came out, it was immediately lambasted on certain segments of Twitter as being about a racist cop who suffers no consequences for his actions and is redeemed in the end. I read this and wondered and, to be frank, was put off on seeing the film for a while.
Instead, in the pantheon of films available that were contenders for the Oscar (keeping in mind that the nominees and the winners, like so much in our religiously monied village, is bought and paid for in campaigns and perks), I caught Get Out and The Shape of Water.
I loved both films. Prior to seeing Three Billboards… I had decided that Get Out was perhaps the most culturally significant film of 2017 in that it was not only tremendously entertaining but also provided an excellent allegory for what it feels like to be a black millennial in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter.
Then I saw Three Billboards...
Written by Martin McDonagh (a playwright and screenwriter known for dark satires like The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Pillowman, and films like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) Three Billboards… eschews the easy answers of a Good vs. Evil narrative and presents a comic tale of complicated humans doing complicated things for complicated reasons. Of course, it's "problematic."
Notably, the emphasis on morality plays as the most popular form of narrative is relatively recent. The fables of Aesop do not pit good against evil — the tortoise is not innately representative of a moral center and the hare is not an avatar for depravity, they both simply represent different approaches to the same problem. The moral is not so much moral but instructive. The American legends of Paul Bunyan and John Henry are not biblical tales of decency and piety but rather tales of less strident and Puritanical visions of ethical behavior.
Stories from an oral tradition never have a modern good guy or bad guy, despite their reputation for being moralizing. In Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s treasures. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight injustice?
Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional versions, Cinderella merely needs to be hot to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy strategies that the other wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets to eat, not good versus evil.
Arguably, the propaganda of war combined with the lectures of religion set the table for our infantile attraction to the morality tale. Complexity in a world with over seven billion people is discouraged because that shit don't sell Tide. Once the idea of national values entered our storytelling, the peculiar moral physics underlying the phenomenon of good guys versus bad guys has been remarkably consistent.
The Shape of Water is a beautiful tale and a grandly lush film with extremely simplistic characters who never deviate from who they are morally from frame one. Del Torro tells us at each step how we are supposed to feel and which side everyone is on. It's comforting to not have to think about it.
Get Out is likewise a propaganda. In Peele's movie, all blacks are good and all whites are evil. It's a great ride, a fantastic horror film and a brilliant allegory for the current perspective on race relations in America today.
Three Billboards… is complicated. The characters are flawed. Mildred Hayes is filled with rage at what she sees as negligence on the police chief's part and uses McDonagh's metaphor for the callout culture of the internet to openly shame him into action. Chief Willoughby, however, isn't the cartoon bad guy he's supposed to be and that's confusing. The deeply racist Officer Dixon is not merely defined by his racism but by his anger, low intelligence and issues with his even more deeply racist mother.
Mildred does not get what she wants in the end. She wants to catch her daughter's rapist and, like Willoughby, fails. Dixon does not get his comeuppance for his brutality nor is he redeemed — he loses everything (his job, his status, his face) and is poised for redemption but, in the end, both he and Hayes set out to wreak vengeance on someone they believe is guilty of crime but not the crime that has touched their lives.
McDonagh's characters are frustratingly human.
In this day and age, with the embrace of these simple-minded techniques of creating a fantasy of Good (victims of police brutality, victims of sexual harassment, undocumented immigrants) and Evil (police, men, Donald Trump), it is advisable that we all pull away from these narratives some. These fantasies are perfect for hobbits, wizards and superheroes but not so much for modern people set in modern stories. While entertaining on a fundamental level, these narratives do not address the very complicated truths of humanity. That we all are good and we all are evil and that we all are capable of complex reasons for doing both.