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My 12 for ’18: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” & All This Anger, Man

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number five.

All this anger, man. Penelope said to me the other day: it just begets greater anger, you know? And it’s true.

Everybody is angry.

The modern era has been defined as an “age of anger.” Anger has been demonstrated to travel faster through social networks than other emotions like love or joy. Studies suggest that Americans are particularly angry, with almost seventy percent of the country angry over the direction of the nation. Anger and resentment are calculated to be among the largest factors in the election of Donald Trump, and the passing of the Brexit referendum.

Of course, not all anger is created equal. Some anger is justified, perhaps even by centuries of oppression and systemic violence. Some anger is useful, in that it motivates grassroots activism that works towards a constructive good. Indeed, there is an argument that short control releases of anger might actually be healthy in the long term, something of a venting mechanism to prevent things from escalating to the point of an explosion.

If anything is clear, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not about that kind of anger. It is about the combustible, explosive kind.

Of course, it is impossible to talk about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri without talking about the critical response to it. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was easily one of the most divisive films of Oscar season, which is saying something given how contentious Oscar season can be. After all, this is a ceremony where Casey Affleck won a Best Actor Oscar just the previous year, when Mel Gibson had been also been nominated for Best Film and Best Director.

There were a number of lines of criticism against Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The most valid argument had to do with the film’s portrayal of race. This was, after all, a film released at a time when a national debate was unfolding about police violence towards African Americans. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri featured a prominent character accused of such violence, and another prominent character accused of aiding and abetting such violence.

However, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was not exactly committed to exploring this angle. In fact, the racially-motivated nature of Deputy Dixon’s transgression was only really employed as a cudgel by Mildred Hayes in her own crusade against the Ebbing Sheriff’s Department. The most prominent black characters were Jerome and Denise. Jerome helped to put up the eponymous billboard and Denise worked with Mildred at the local curiousity store. Neither had a particularly developed arc.

This is a fair criticism. There is a sense that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri grapples with big ideas with which it is not necessarily ready to handle. However, there is some sense of awareness in all of this. Mildred is not acting against the local police department because she is trying to advance minority rights or in order to seek justice for the person brutalised by Dixon. Mildred is instead motivated by her own loss, and using that anger to further her own agenda.

While Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri allows Jerome and Denise to support Mildred’s campaign for their own reasons, the film never pretends that Mildred is actually invested in the accusations of police brutality against Jason Dixon. The script avoids getting drawn into the particulars because that would dilute the narrative and confuse the central theme. Mildred’s anger at the police department is not righteous or just in the same way that a legitimate protest of the department’s treatment of minority suspects would be just.

The second line of criticism is that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a story that hinges on the redemption of a racist, that Jason Dixon gets redeemed without ever having to confront or acknowledge his abuse of power. This is a more spurious criticism. Dixon never acknowledges his abuse. He suffers over the course of the film; he is burnt by Mildred and beaten by an anonymous racist. However, none of that is tied to the violence that he himself committed.

However, Dixon is also never redeemed. The film hints at his redemption in a way that consciously plays with audience expectations. After the death of Chief Willoughby, Dixon commits himself to solving the rape and murder of Angela Hayes. In a more conventional narrative, this would lead to redemption. He overhears a story in a bar, and takes a beating. He believes that he has the killer. It turns out that it was all for nothing. The guy boasting in the bar was not the rapist, because life does not work that way. Redemption does not work that way.

So, what next? Having realised that redemption is not easy and not predetermined, does Dixon redouble his efforts to do the right thing? Whether that is to find the actual killer or to make things right following the charges of brutality raised against him? No. He does not. Dixon instead suggests that the best course of action might be to take a road trip with Mildred and murder the guy that he overheard in a bar. A person who has not been found guilty of any crime. A person who could not physically be the murderer.

This is not redemption. This is damnation. This is the exact opposite of redemption. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri does not end with two characters taking a roadtrip to redemption. It ends with two characters half-heartedly trying to do the hard work of healing, and then falling back into self-righteous anger when the journey is more difficult than they had imagined. As such, the politics of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri are more complicated than they might originally seem.

It is good that these discussions take place. It is also not my place as a white writer to tell those people offended by Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that they were wrong to react to it in the way that they did, or that they were incorrect to feel the way that they did about it. It is also not my place to disagree with the Black Film Critics Circle when they named it the third best movie of 2017 or the African American Film Critics Association when they named it the second best movie of 2017.

In some ways, the outrage over Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is informative. It reinforces the movie’s sense of time and place. The modern world is defined by anger and outrage. Outrage over female and minority gamers entering spaces traditionally white and masculine. Outrage over the portrayal of a fictional space wizard in a belated sequel to a beloved seventies classic. Outrage over some ill-considered jokes that a celebrity made years ago.

This is a world where the President of the United States describes the press as “the enemy of the people” and then one of his supporters mails a series of pipe bombs to prominent media organisations. This is a world where the same morning that a paranoid anti-immigration advertisement is unveiled, a pro-immigration Member of Parliament is brutally stabbed to death. This is a world where years after Hillary Clinton lost the election, crowds are still angrily and bitterly chanting “lock her up.”

Anger flows through modern discourse, much as it courses through Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It doesn’t matter that Mildred’s anger is not constructive; there is every indication that the local law enforcement did as much as they could to find Angela’s killer. It doesn’t matter that Mildred’s anger is arguably truly directed at herself; Mildred clearly hates herself for her last words to her daughter, and the billboards are just a way to make the rest of the town hate her as well. It doesn’t matter that Mildred is just horrible to everyone, even those who are nice to her.

All that matters to Mildred is that anger is what gets her out of bed. Anger gets her through the day. Anger gives her something to do. Anger allows her to feels something other than just powerless. One of the saddest and strangest scenes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri comes when Mildred tries to get up after her billboards have burned down, the billboards that she erected facing her own house (rather than facing town) near the sight where her daughter died. The billboards that are a makeshift memorial; she even plants flowers around them.

Mildred throws her feet over the side of the bed. She no longer has the energy to get up. It has all drained away. However, pantomiming a conversation to herself through the slippers, she finds the energy to keep going through a vow to “crucify the motherf%$kers.” That anger provides an energy. It provides a motivation. It imbues Mildred with a purpose at a time when she feels lost and empty inside. As a result, she cannot give it up. Losing those billboards is like losing Angela all over again.

However, anger is not constructive. It is destructive. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri returns time and again to fire as a metaphor for uncontrollable anger; the fire in which Angela burnt, the fire that the rapist at the bar describes, the fire that Charlie sets to destroy the billboards, the fire that Mildred sets in the police station. These fires burn in ways that people cannot predict, and they leave scars; the scorched earth by the billboard, the burnt out billboards, the scars on Dixon’s face.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri repeatedly and earnestly suggests an alternative to this anger and violence. Penelope is not a particularly articulate or sophisticated character, but she has an innocence and an understanding that is lacked by Mildred and many of the characters around her. Perhaps the most earnest and endearing moment in the film comes when Red Welby forgives Jason Dixon for throwing him out the window, offering his tormentor compassion and forgiveness instead of perpetuating cycles of anger and violence.

This is what saves Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri from a bleak cynical nihilism. There is a recurring suggestion that the kids might actually be all right, that the younger generation might escape the cycle of violence perpetuated by their elders. Robbie Hayes noticeably wants no part of his mother’s crusade. In fact, the violence begat by Charlie and Mildred and Dixon is juxtaposed against hints of blossoming romance between the younger characters; Red’s flirtation with Pamela, Jerome’s date with Denise. Maybe it doesn’t always have to be like this.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a complicated and messy film. And there is nothing wrong with that. Films are allowed to be messy and complicated. In fact, they should probably be encouraged. However, it is also a film that grapples with the perils of uncontrolled and unfocused anger, the collateral damage that is wrought when that fire burns. There is something very timely in all of that.

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