Directed by Martin McDonagh (2017)
by Francis Friel, The Projectionist
“Anger begets more anger.”
This is very true. I’m sure you’ve noticed this. In our darkest moments when we feel we’ve been wronged, it can be difficult, impossible even, to feel anything like empathy or compassion or love for those around us. Certainly, it’s unimaginable that our enemies would ever be greeted with any kindness or mercy. But just as often we might find ourselves reaching our breaking points and acting out in such a way that others - our friends and family, maybe - may be forced to step in and say, “Stop. Think about what you’re doing. Think about the consequences.”
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri tries to have it both ways. The weird thing here is that it largely succeeds. It’s the consequences of these acts of shocking violence and vengeance that lead, step by step, towards the surprising and - it has to be said - humane ending. And that ending, with its hints that the story will only continue down its road of viciousness and horror (at least for some), is important. Throughout the film we’re shown rotten people who do disgusting things, very few of them justifiable by any metric outside those set up by the film’s own logic of clockwork cruelty and bloodshed. But the fact that we arrive at a moment where someone is thinking - even trying to think - even one step ahead of the present moment comes through like a beacon.
It’s the act of trying to outsmart the wrong people that sets this whole tale or rampage and disorder into motion. While the three billboards of the title are largely a totem of loss and grief (with a huge dose of rage), what they become are enormous mirrors, set up on the side of a road “where no one ever goes anymore.” We see the woman who hires the billboard company to create them. We meet the workers who stay up all night putting them up. We deal with the cops who are furious at their implications. New stories run about the billboards and what they mean. The woman’s son has to deal with bullying at school over them. Priests, dentists, war veterans, and nineteen-year-olds quoting inspirational bookmarks are all sucked into the billboards’ orbit. And all of them pay a price. Some get it worse than others, but no one is spared their wrath. They each have to reckon with this new world, the world with the billboards, and come to terms with what the billboards mean to each of them.
But it’s in the moment of stopping, of pulling ourselves together, and of remembering that we’re all in this together, that human beings tend to rise to the occasion and actually get shit done. Maybe it’s not the right thing. But action, the film would argue, is always more positive than inaction. If we fuck up, that’s actually okay. Because we’ll learn something. I won’t go so far as to say we learn from our mistakes but, at the very least, we learn what works and what doesn’t. Maybe we keep making the same mistakes but, if we’re smart - or, fuck it, if we’re lucky - we’ll at least grab ahold of some sort of map to how the world is laid out. It’s a world made up of people. “Maybe there is no god and it’s all meaningless and nothing we do to each other matters.” The important part is that the character who says this line follows it up with a “or maybe not.”
When we can take just five seconds to run through our own actions in our own heads we’ll probably find a better way of speaking, a clearer method of approaching our lives, and that will lead to some greater awareness. It’s all good to go out to protests and call our representatives and put up billboards. But what if someone burns the billboards down? What’s the next step? Or what if you’re a huge piece of shit and everyone but you knows it? And you step out of line to the wrong person and you’re out of a job in an instant, all because of that woman and her fucking billboards? Do you take your revenge on that woman? On the person who fired you? Or do you listen to the words someone - thankfully - wrote down for you? Telling you to calm yourself. To think this through. To be a better human being. Then actually get things done.
“Anger begets more anger.” It’s true. But it also steers us in the right direction once in awhile. As the film arrives at its stunning final moments, as two characters drive off into the sunset towards one final blaze of savage glory, we have to remember that for the first time in its two hours, Three Billboards is stopping to consider the consequences. Will they go through with it? It might not matter. What does matter is that someone has finally taken the wheel and is looking further down the road than they might’ve been the day before. For a film as jam-packed with as many near-operatic levels of destruction as this one, that’s as close to a happy ending as we were ever going to get.