In a political moment when the American president not only stokes the fires of sexism, racism, and the hate they represent but also seems to embody these values, Martin McDonagh’s 2017 film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in its thoughtful, sympathetic, and loving approach to understanding hate, could not be more timely.
Condemning the hate so powerfully prevalent in our culture these days is easy. Taking a careful and caring approach to understanding the dynamics of hate and where it comes from as well as our fellow humans who give expression to it in thought, speech, and actual violence against others, is far more difficult–but, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to teach us, absolutely crucial and necessary for creating a just and humane world.
Three Billboards chooses the latter approach, marking it as one of the most important and urgent films of the year—a year that witnessed tiki torch-carrying white supremacists storming Charlottesville, Virginia, an event that inspired terror in many Americans but which also manifested a set of feelings, beliefs, and attitudes it would be wrong to dismiss as marginal or aberrant and not acknowledge as characteristic of a chief current in some dimensions of American culture. We are a divided nation, and hate is not a minority report.
Repression and denial doesn’t make feelings go away, we know. We have to confront and process them. Three Billboards attempts to process and understand hate, so we can overcome it.
The film offers a profound analysis of hate and terror, understanding the hate so prevalent in our world as deeply rooted in—and as expressions of—American experiences of grief and trauma in our individual as well as collective national lives and histories.
The first character we meet in the film is Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) as she devises her plan to rent three billboards to display text calling out the Ebbing police, and in particular Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for, in her view, not devoting enough energy and resources to finding and arresting the person responsible for raping and killing her daughter. As one might imagine, she carries this loss as an open and abiding wound, an unresolved trauma that consumes her. In an interview with local media about the billboards, she links what she sees as the police’s neglect of her case with their apparent notoriety for torturing African Americans, asserting that if the police spent less time brutalizing people of color, they might be able to spend time solving her daughter’s rape and murder.
From here the drama begins, as her billboards and calling out of perceived sexism and racism in the police force generate tension and division in the town and even within her own family, as her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) expresses anger at her for keeping ever-present and public for him such a painful episode in his life.
Willoughby, a character with political savvy but also sincere compassion, tries to talk to Mildred about the case, at once worried about the politics of the billboards but also seemingly genuinely motivated by human compassion. He tries to explain to her about the lack of leads in the case and need to wait for a potentially random clue or event to re-ignited the investigation.
His second-in-command Office Dixon, who is immature, hot-headed, and arguably prejudiced and at least racially insensitive, handles the situation less calmly, especially after Willoughby, whom we know is living in the throes of pancreatic cancer, commits suicide. At that point, Dixon, wrongly believing the suicide is motivated at least in part by the pressures brought on the by the billboards, brutally beats Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the vendor of the billboards, and throws him out of a second-story window.
While certainly a case of police brutality and abuse of power, McDonagh also asks us to understand Dixon’s behavior as an expression of grief over his loss of Willoughby. Understanding Dixon’s hateful violence as a reactive, unhealthy, and abusive expression of grief does not excuse the behavior, but it does arguably transform how we might respond to Dixon and, by extension, respond to perpetrators of hate and violence in our world.
The theme is further complicated when Mildred, not knowing Dixon is inside, later firebombs the police station, leaving him badly burned. This extreme action the film also asks us to see as an act of violence and destruction, if not hate, that emanates from a deep grief and trauma. Because we had sympathized with Mildred as a victim with justice on her side enduring one of the most profound pains imaginable, the movie creates a viewing scenario in which we can more easily enter into her character to understand her violent response. But the movie asks us to extend this understanding to other acts of violence, even of hate, we might otherwise be less inclined to exert the energy to sympathetically understand.
At the time of the firebombing, Dixon is reading a letter Willoughby left him, in which Willoughby lovingly encourages Dixon in becoming a detective, recognizing his potential talent but advising him that he must overcome his hate and anger to arrive at a place of calm and thought, as these the art of detection requires both of these qualities.
Indeed, the art of understanding, the film underscores, requires calm and thought. This letter is profound and key to the movie.
In the film, we see Dixon reach out to and help Mildred, and we see Red Welby respond kindly and lovingly to Dixon in a moving hospital scene.
As the movie concludes, Dixon and Mildred are on the road headed to seek revenge on a suspected rapist. They are uncertain about whether they will follow through.
This is the choice with which the film presents our nation. How will we respond to hate? Will we in turn choose violence, or pursue solutions with calm and thought, processing our anger into something more productive?
In November 2016, I wrote a piece for PoliticusUsa titled “Trauma and Trump: Understanding America’s Vote Requires a Psychotherapuetic Approach,” in which I argued, in a nutshell, that we have to understand Trump’s election in terms of the dynamics of abuse and trauma. Those who suffer abuse, typically, will continue to put themselves in the way of abusers, re-creating abusive situations, until they come to address the trauma they’ve endured.
The American electorate, the mass of Americans, I suggested, have endured an abuse, lacking healthcare, living with economic and social instability, having difficulty meeting basic needs, and more. For masses of Americans, life in America is traumatic, and our nation’s history of genocide, working-class exploitation, slavery, women’s oppression, and more no doubt leaves a deep trauma in itself with which we have never come to terms or processed as a collective.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri highlights this need to process our national collective trauma and to think carefully—and lovingly, in the spirit of Dr. King—about how we understand and choose to respond to the hate and violence so prevalent in and characteristic of American life, both historically and in our contemporary moment.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.