I recently watched the thought-provoking film, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’, a movie that invites the viewer to reflect on classic ‘Western’ themes of justice and redemption, through the eyes of its righteously angry main character, Mildred Hayes.
Seven months before the action begins we learn that Mildred’s daughter, Angela, had been raped and murdered, though progress in solving the case has ground to a halt. Mildred’s ensuing frustration leads to her renting three billboards which sequentially display the messages ‘RAPED WHILE DYING’, ‘AND STILL NO ARRESTS?’, and ‘HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?’ as people drive along a road. The boards upset many local people and are especially offensive to the police, particularly to Sheriff Willoughby who feels personally attacked. Willoughby has terminal pancreatic cancer, adding to the town’s disapproval of Mildred’s actions. Willoughby visits Hayes, telling her about his diagnosis (which is actually an open secret in the town) but she remains firm in her decision to leave the boards up. As she says ‘they won’t be as effective when you’ve croaked.’
Not wanting to prolong his agony, Willoughby commits suicide, leaving notes for his wife, for Mildred and for his deadbeat colleague in the police force, Jason Dixon (who had threatened, then violently assaulted Red, the ad-man who rented the billboards to Mildred). In his note to Mildred, Willoughby reveals that he paid for the boards to stay up another month when she could no longer afford it. Eventually the billboards are set alight (it later transpires Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie is the arsonist), and Mildred retaliates by setting the police station on fire. She doesn’t know Dixon has gone there to read his letter from Willoughby, an epistle in which he is urged to let go of hate and learn to love in order to fulfil his dream of becoming a detective. As the station goes up in flames, Dixon (uttering a newly-found mantra: ‘calm’) escapes with Angela’s case files but is badly burned and ends up in hospital.
After Dixon is discharged (having spent his stay in the bed next to Red, whom he hospitalised a few days earlier) he goes to a bar and overhears a man bragging about a rape he committed. Viewers know this same man visited Hayes at her workplace, though Hayes does not share this with Dixon. Based on the man’s description of the attack, Dixon believes he could be Angela’s killer, so having noted his Idaho number plate, he provokes a fight to obtain a sample of his DNA. Ultimately, the DNA doesn’t match the evidence collected from Angela’s body, and the man has a watertight alibi insofar as he was in the military at the time of the crime. Nonetheless, Hayes and Dixon are convinced of his guilt as a rapist and decide to track him down in Idaho to effect justice in the time honoured Western way – by means of a bullet.
The viewer is left in suspense, however as to whether Hayes and Dixon will carry out their mission. They set out for Idaho, but agree to decide what to do on the way. The viewer is left to ponder the eventual outcome for themselves, which offers an ingenious way of drawing us in to weigh the moral questions at stake:
Can one man’s death substitute for another man’s death if both are guilty? Hayes and Dixon seem to be impelled (at least initially) by the idea of collective or mutual guilt – a theme Mildred addresses in an unsolicited visit from the local priest, whom she sees as participating in the collective guilt of a church that has colluded in and covered up abuse.
Does vengeance constitute justice anyway? While revenge seems to serve justice of a sort, ‘An eye for an eye’ (Leviticus 24: 19- 21), perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence that can only deepen hatred and fuel further reprisals. Revenge turns victims and their allies into perpetrators. The flawed logic of the lex talionis is revealed by Sr. Helen Prejean in the film, Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins, 1995): ‘I just don’t see the sense of killing people to say that killing people’s wrong.’
Is there an alternative to vengeance? In Dead Man Walking (1995), a true story also centred on rape and murder, the question of forgiveness is raised. This does not feature in Three Billboards, though the viewer is perhaps invited to reflect on other ways of stopping the cycle of violence, which could perhaps eventually include forgiveness. The film’s most powerful message is, for me, placed in the mouth of its most naïve character, Penelope (Hayes’ ex-husband Charlie’s nineteen year old girlfriend) who quotes the words: ‘Anger begets anger’ from a Hallmark-style bookmark.
How true that is…
Dr Liz Gulliford is a Researcher at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. She co-edited ‘Forgiveness in Context: Theology and Psychology in Creative Dialogue’ (T&T Clark, 2004) and contributed to the forthcoming volume ‘Forgiveness in Practice’ (Jessica Kingsley, in press). She is also author of ‘Can I Tell You about Forgiveness? A Helpful Introduction for Everyone’ (Jessica Kingsley, July 2018).