Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri: The Trouble with Empathy

“Hate never solved nothing… But Calm did. And Thought did. Try it. Try it just for a change. No-one’ll think you’re gay.”

Whether you liked Three Billboards or not, it could’ve hardly come out at a better time: between a surge of xenophobia, #MeToo and other trends, US and international audiences of every kind can find something of interest in this movie. What’s surprising (or sadly not so much) is that the story can still be deemed relevant despite having been originally written little under seven years ago. When asked about the potential problems of bringing such a story to life in such a different political atmosphere, McDonagh asserted that despite everything “Nothing warranted [him] to revise the script”. To the people unsatisfied of how the British/Irish director treated the topic of racism and police violence, this could well serve as the proof of how irresponsibly deaf Three Billboards is to the racial underbelly of police brutality. To people truly or supposedly detached from the polarization of US politics, such as yours truly, it may otherwise seem like the author was aiming at a neutral depiction of a microcosm of American society packed with everything from free speech to “people coming home from sandy places”.

However, supposed neutral depictions more often than not try to have a cake and eat it too. Rhetorically, claiming objectivity is an attempt to pull a thesis out of the mud of debate by giving it a level of cogency which would otherwise be earned by argument. Politically, an appeal to realism or a naturalistic approach has always been a mean to an end, be it Dogma 95’s quest for authenticity or the XIX century’s search for a Christian truth.

So, what’s the motivation behind Three Billboard’s “non-position”? I doubt McDonagh wanted to engage in the kind of false moral equivalency which puts the rage of a mother at the same level of police brutality. What’s more likely is that a script born as a critical overview of a 2010s small American town was at some point hijacked by the central conflict between Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) and Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

Three Billboards Day 02_164.dng

The criticism of unnecessary scenes and side characters, uneven characterization of Mildred vis-à-vis other characters and sloppy editing could largely be attributed to the remains of a hypothetical first, “social draft”, and would certainly make more sense if the conflict between Hayes and the sheriff was only part of a greater social fresco. It would certainly explain much if the premise of the three billboards was supposed to just be the inciting incident awakening Ebbing’s not-so-dormant conflicts. It would even work better with the movie’s central themes of descent into violence and redemption: deputy Dixon’s much criticized arc would not be that of an antagonist, violently threatening the well-being of the characters we root for, but would have functioned as a synecdoche of something larger than the mom-loving, homophobe idiot depicted by Sam Rockwell. The way he’s portrayed in the final cut lacks the symbolic power his development could’ve implied, morphing what was supposed to be a redemption into an implausibly sudden turn.

Narrowing the film’s scope from the social to the personal level McDonagh failed to account for the altered mindset of the public, which shifted from the more reflective framework of social dramas to the ordinary suspension of disbelief of character-driven stories. What may have been more abstract food for thought transformed into a very personal revenge story in which empathy makes it harder to question the logic of the characters the public roots for from scene to scene. In the same interview to BUILD he stated that he wanted to trick moviegoers into blindly subscribing into the same cycle of hate destroying the town:

“You think you know the side you’re on, but as it goes on, it kinda questions whether you should be picking a side”.

 It’s a logic which may resonate with an abstracted observer who’s only informed on the facts of the story, but it doesn’t fly when the script reverts to a deeply personal story to which is horrifyingly easy to relate. How can one blame Mildred’s action after having invested a good portion of the movie in her sorrow? How can one forgive Willoughby mid-film after all what happened under his watch? Three Billboards is one of those movies indulging in what it preaches against: war movies may be accused of glorifying violence, court dramas of sensationalizing crime, but McDonagh asks to observe Ebbing through critical lenses while also empathizing for its citizens. Nevertheless, given the circumstances, avoiding stirring up emotions would’ve been a tall order even if he had committed to building a microcosm rather than writing a revenge story.

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