The Living Word: "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"
In the beginning there was the Word. Or, in the film's beginning there were the Billboards basted with letters, ferociously blunt signifiers for something that would apparently precede them, specifically the charred flesh of a young woman who was raped and burned alive. The three billboards are a triptych, and as such in Martin McDonagh’s volubly titled Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, they nod to early Christian art, costumed here by the sensibilities of a lapsed Catholic storytelling in MAGA Nation’s Dead Center, where broader conflicts of race, class, and sex play out on the rural periphery of a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. Calling attention to a body, the Flesh-made-Word, the roadside is also a profane Calvary, and meditation on the words (or “Word,” surfing with the ecclesiastical wind) is, in spring's Easter bloom, fertilized with realization and resurrection. McDonagh’s wordy title is no throwaway quirk, but a musing on language obscuring—and intricately related to—the story of a body leaping beyond abstract barriers and changing things. This is applicable to the Law, the Press, and why not, the Movies.
Three Billboards begins with the negotiation of the selected words with the small-town advertising man in charge of the property, Red (Caleb Landry Jones, introduced reading Flannery O'Connor, and so loudly ringing its Catholic theme). The murdered girl’s mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), wants to rent three neglected billboards on a back road with the script, respectively, “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” There are certain words that, of course, can’t be used (“fuck,” “shit,” and the curious mention of “anus”--more on words associating with bodies later), but Mildred has the cash and Red has the men who can plaster it up, so the blankly antique scaffolds suddenly have meaning again, however cutting their content that would prefer to repress such questions to private discourse.
Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) isn’t neglectful of his duties, though his department is stocked with misfits and dullards, most notably Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who has scurrilous notoriety involving mistreatment of Ebbing’s black citizens (the word is he's tortured them while they're in custody). As with many cases, Willoughby just couldn’t crack a case that left behind few clues or matching DNA. He's a widely respected figure in the community, and when Mildred’s signs go to the press, there’s an agon of public reception between a grieving mother and the good lawman, further complicated by the latter’s declining health, something he's tried to hide but is apparently common knowledge.
McDonagh’s plot is a complementing triptych to the billboards, as Mildred’s central panel is flanked by Willoughby and Dixon, the alcoholic deputy who still lives with his single mother who sits arrested in front of her television smoking and drinking, disappearing from the agony of disappointment and poverty of meaning. Dixon is a degraded product of his own circumstances whose position in the law is probably psychologically compensatory for his many shortcomings; he clings to the privilege of his authority, though he too easily misplaces his badge, appropriate considering he doesn't understand its civic meaning (which, to be topical, epitomizes a perennial American problem, most especially in the time when the Oval Office is suddenly a platform of declining rhetoric). Willoughby has become Dixon's surrogate father, and so the deputy zealously harasses Mildred and Red to extremes that, as the chief's cancerous predicament comes to a close, turn violent.
Revolving through Mildred’s pertinacious drive to keep the billboards up are the effects on her surviving teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who’s now bullied at school, her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), currently dating 19-year-old Penelope (Samara Weaving), and Willoughby’s otherwise idyllic domestic life with wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) and two sweet daughters. While on this triptych Mildred is resolutely in place, her two flanking panels move to alternate destinations: Willoughby’s being terminal as he procures what he can for his family in the time he has left while re-opening the insoluble Angela Hayes case file; and Dixon's, like Calvary’s penitent thief, to a purifying (literally, by fire) metamorphosis, the irredeemable reprobate at last opening his eyes and born-again by virtue of recognizing the significance of the Word, eventually maiming his own body in a blazing inferno to save the Hayes case file.
That defining action denotes a catholic—which is to say universal—theme here, stemming from my opening remarks. The words in the case file are not differentiated, symbiotically, from Mildred’s on the billboards which, though themselves going up in flames, have overleapt tactile parameters and fulfilled the transmigration of text as Angela’s body—seen briefly in a case photograph—has informed them. This sense of an ideological monad pervades Three Billboards, introduced by McDonagh in a scene between Mildred and the town priest, who tries to advise her to take them down. With lawyerly application she replies by detailing Los Angeles’ culpability laws used in dealing with Crips and Bloods in the early 1990s, whereby any member could be held responsible for a crime committed by a specific individual in the gang, the implication in this exchange being that Mildred doesn’t need the priest’s counsel because he, a member of the Holy Roman Brotherhood, might as well be one of the many clergymen who molested children.
This is the sordid conflict beneath Mildred’s feeling and action, Willoughby’s response and resignation, and Dixon’s reactance and heroic migration: the problem of communicating and translating onto the generalized “tables of the Law” something specific, reaching for some universal sense of the human when juxtaposed against the specific differences of incidents (e.g. rapes, murders) and, more to the point, flesh. A motif in McDonagh’s script is that of the differentiation of bodies, most broadly based on that of race and sex (Ebbing is boiling with racial tension thanks to the way policemen like Dixon have targeted people of color) and then grossly specific peculiarities, such as the two people who’ve filed complaints against the billboards: a “woman with the weird eye” and a “fat dentist”; Red is singled out for his ginger hair, and a young man who delivers a message isn’t only described by his heritage (Mexican) but by how he’s “fat and little.” Mildred’s ex Charlie’s new flame Penelope is not described through her private agency or personality (she's played as ditzy, but I think Weaving's performance implies a richer inner life) but the physical descriptor of her age, while Mildred’s wooer is car salesman James (Peter Dinklage), whose “town midget” status is repeatedly mentioned. Even the coach potato habits of Dixon’s mom are driven by spectating physical attributes: she’s watching Don’t Look Now (another film about parental grief) not because she’s particularly drawn to Nicolas Roeg’s cinema puzzles but because she likes Donald Sutherland’s hair.
Willoughby actively wraps the problem of the Word and Flesh together, not only because of the symbolism of a lawman afflicted with pancreatic cancer, but through the verbal humor in a post-coital scene with Anne when she playfully praises his “real nice cock,” which he jokes is a quote from Shakespeare and she corrects him by attributing it to Oscar Wilde (an Irish master of language--and so an antecedent to McDonagh--whose bodily activities landed him in deep trouble with the law). Nature, embodied here by a deer grazing close to Mildred and her billboards or the horses in the Willoughby residence stables, don’t interrupt the textuality at hand but play witness to it, with it instead of merely playing one side of a symbolic binary. This provokes a curious reading of an argument between Mildred and Willoughby, where he supplicates his troubling position against her obstinacy, the antagonism jarringly switching gears once the body emerges in the dialectic and Willoughby coughs blood on Mildred mid-dialogue, to which she responds with curiously fluid compassion, as if there is no conflict or break between the body and words; it's a Eucharist. The arbitration of language is sort of in its own bubble, gated from bodily realities, and must be released. Willoughby says, “We’re all dying,” which is the only certainty in the encyclopaedic garble of legislative assessments. The function of literature is closing the gap between the real and representative, making the Word at last Flesh, the metaphor an actuality.
In Christianity this was solved in the crucifixion and resurrection, memorialized in the Eucharistic sacrament, but the argument on the meaning of Calvary plays out through 2,000 years of constantly revised dogma and language, meaning that the fulfillment of the messiah perpetuates a circle that isn’t solved collectively but individually, privately, away from an overarching public generalization. McDonaugh begins his story with Mildred approaching the advertising man Red on Holy Week (presumably Good Friday) and the Words are tellingly erected on Easter Sunday, their concretization interrupting Willoughby’s holiday dinner. However lapsed McDonagh is (like his characters), the Passion plays out in the bodies and souls of his scenarios (previously in In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths), the pith of Christianity being a subjective problem to be worked out over time, conversion and baptism playing out incessantly, much as in the work of other (lapsed) Catholic filmmakers Abel Ferrera (pointedly in The Driller Killer and Bad Lieutenant) and Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets to Silence). Ebbing, Missouri becomes a new Jerusalem with unlikely Nazarene saviors (Mildred was hardly a saintly mother, and is pained with guilt because of her stern and harsh final words to her daughter), beginning a new westward journey, which is to say the new Eden.
The human body is transcribed in code as DNA, the specifications of which negate a Luciferian suspect in the Hayes case, whose face is scratched in a bar brawl by Dixon, the fallen officer's nails capturing flesh punning on a transformative crucifixion. This suspect, who terrorizes Mildred in her antique store which seems to implicate himself as the shadow who's been stalking her through seven months of grief, has a demonic pull in that, while his DNA reveals he’s not Angela’s killer, alludes to a Legion brotherhood ("because we are many," as Mark's Gospel accounts), a culpability damning him through his own overheard words presumably involving—if not Angela—another young woman raped and burned alive during his military service on the other side of the planet. The Catholic transubstantiation contextualized to widespread culpability squeezes the world into Ebbing’s nexus point, solving the problem for Mildred and Dixon for an instant before the Mystery once more holds them to account and contemplation.
This suspect—from Idaho—might as well be Angela’s killer, a rapist like any other, and so, it's determined (no less by the audience than by Mildred and Dixon), should be met with Mildred’s retributive justice. Then the deeper problems of Revenge, which hold Ebbing’s characters fixed in circles, clouding their reason, emerge from the message on a bookmark (a revelation to Penelope, who thus becomes the story's Holy Fool): anger begets more anger. The Will meets the Word, and instead of offering easy catharsis, McDonagh’s film, while sometimes slipping into rote storytelling and relational exchanges, keeps its eyes open within the Triptych's problems, the lingering questions part and parcel with its, however lapsed, Catholicism. We, like Mildred and Dixon, aren’t given the demanding will’s satisfaction for representative revenge, but similarly have to drive home with it, overlooking and re-reading the texts imprinted through our experiences as spectators upon a projected rectangle. The transcendent journey in Three Billboards is words striving towards real world meaning, undeniably relevant in the land of MAGA ball caps and "thoughts and prayer" tweets following terrible massacres on an almost monthly basis. When the word too often degrades to a fusty sign, the dream here, fulfilled in moviedom representation, is that they may breathe and bleed.