Anger Begets Anger: ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ As Southern Gothic

Watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in a theater in Belfast, while my fellow moviegoers cringed at the violent United States, I recognized the Gothic South.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonagh
Fox Searchlight
10 November 2017 (US)

Warning: Spoilers for the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri abound.

“That’s right, I’m Angela Hayes’s mother,” Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand, says ruefully, and viewers begin to learn why this woman wants to rent billboards, and why that’s making the local adman nervous. The titular Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri are Mildred’s way of calling out the local police force for their investigative failures in the case of her daughter Angela, who was raped, murdered, and set ablaze seven months prior. The film follows Mildred’s confrontations with Chief Bill Willoughby, Officer Jason Dixon, and various other locals, including the town priest, the “fat dentist”, her abusive ex-husband Charlie, and can-throwing teenagers.

As a native Southerner who lives in Belfast, I was interested in the local reception to this film, especially after I learned of the writer-director’s Irish roots. Walking out of the theater, my neighbor muttered something about American violence. “Is everyone so angry?” she asked, shaking her head. (The fact that the film was preceded by the trailer for I, Tonya likely only added to this reading.) Her partner joined in, and our conversation quickly turned to the off-screen violence.

Much of the motivating violence in this film happens out of the frame: the rape and murder of Angela Hayes and Dixon’s torturing of an African American in police custody. Musing on the latter, my fellow movie-goers asked me if racism is supposed to be funny in the United States. This comment was based on an argument between Mildred and Dixon that references his reputation for racist brutality. The scene is played for laughs, with Dixon as the butt of the joke. But the experiences and the fates of the other characters at the mercy of this scene—the victims of Dixon’s violence—are never explained. The few African American characters in this film serve the purpose of moving Mildred and Dixon’s narratives forward; they have incongruously cheerful demeanors (even after days in jail), limited lines, and no backstories. By contrast, the racist police officer, played by Sam Rockwell, experiences what appears to be a character arc, from being violently racist to being indiscriminately violent, to what many reviewers have read as taking redemptive action.

Three Billboards has been showered with awards, including Oscar nominations for McDormand and Rockwell. This has rightfully generated a controversy addressed by many critics, who have likened it to Crash and deemed it a “tone-deaf” attempt at absolution of white racism.

If this film is supposed to be a “come to Jesus” story about Dixon, then arguing that it mishandles race and racism is a charitable, even tepid critique. But these evaluations miss the mark, or rather, they mistake the genre. Three Billboards is a redemption story only when viewed as a conventional Hollywood narrative in which Mildred and Dixon are protagonists, rather than anti-heroes. Writer-director Martin McDonagh has said as much, arguing that, in the end, Dixon is “still the asshole he was at the start of the film”, although he suggests that, in the end, the character might be a somewhat altered asshole. The same might be said of Mildred, regardless of the empathy one feels for her character as a mother. When Mildred and Dixon join forces, they do not atone for past wrongs; instead, they combine and channel their violence. Although Mildred fears that “there ain’t no god and the whole world’s empty and it don’t matter what we do to each other,” her actions betray a perverted sense of right and wrong. Enacting her own pain, Mildred’s vigilante justice hits a nerve in her small Southern town. It may have an Irish accent, but Three Billboards has a firm sense of place.

Watching this film in a theater in Belfast, while my fellow moviegoers cringed at the violent United States, I recognized the Gothic South. From the Ozarks looming silently behind the billboards, to the neon Lone Star sign in the dingy local bar, to the Moonpies tucked into the tote bag in the back of Mildred’s station wagon, Three Billboards is specifically coded as Southern. But this is not the South we are used to seeing on the silver screen. It’s not the serious South of In the Heat of the Night, although the arrival of the new African American Chief Abercrombie in Ebbing echoes Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs. And as the breathtakingly profane female lead, Mildred is more of a blunt instrument than a “steel magnolia”. Ebbing, Missouri, is the “Horrible South” of Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner. It is the “Rough South” of Dorothy Allison and Larry Brown. It is the Grotesque South of Flannery O’Connor. Indeed, when the audience first meets Red Welby, owner of the Ebbing Advertising Company and purveyor of the fateful billboards, he is reading O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a clear indication, à la Chekhov’s gun, that things are not going to end well. (O’Connor’s story concludes with the murder of an entire family by an escaped convict.)

Southern Gothic features dark, horrific themes, and literary scholars deem it a truth-telling genre, one that offers stark, discomfiting depictions of daily life that challenge conventional narratives. Specifically, the genre is perhaps best known for its damaged families, its “freaks”, and its violence. Three Billboards delivers on all counts. The Hayes family has been torn asunder multiple times, by domestic violence and most graphically by the brutal rape and murder of young Angela. Violence visits the Willoughbys in the form of Bill’s aggressive cancer and subsequent suicide. The Dixons have a Freudian mother-son relationship worthy of Faulkner (or Norman Bates). Ebbing has its “freaks”, of course, including Dixon’s gravel-voiced, turtle-cuddling mother, and James, the well-meaning “town midget” who “sells used cars and has a drinking problem”. Further, although it’s not an action film, Three Billboards is incredibly violent. Rape, murder, torture, spousal abuse, assault (by a police officer and by a dental drill), firebombing, arson, pistol-whipping, crotch-kicking, and a bloody bar brawl all figure in the narrative.

It is worth noting that the classic, Southern “white woman in danger” is the motivating trope, but, true to form, this Gothic film defies that narrative. As the mother of a murdered teenager, Mildred is introduced to viewers as a victim, but she is also a primary perpetrator of violence in the film. Although I—like Denise, Angela’s co-worker at the Southern Charm Gift Shoppe who urges her to “go fuck those cops up” (and then ends up in jail for days as collateral damage)—cheered many of Mildred’s verbal attacks, it’s true that, along with Dixon, this grieving mother is one of the most dangerous people in Ebbing.

The most prolonged violent scene in the film is the bar fight between Dixon and the suspected rapist and murderer of Angela Hayes. This is set to the tune of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down“, a nostalgic ballad about poor whites in the American Civil War that does not mention slavery or race at all. Two of the four witnesses to this scene are Denise and Jerome, African Americans who have been explicitly harassed by Dixon, although they are not the victims of his off-screen racist violence. They watch apprehensively from the bar, where Denise clocks the white men’s fight before it even begins. Even as Dixon is savagely beaten, his power over these two spectators is evident; Jerome pleads with the man to stop, but only because “the guy’s a cop”, and Jerome knows full well that Dixon is vengeful and prone to abuse of power.

The scene ends with Denise and Jerome gaping at Dixon, who is bleeding on the floor while the music swells (“He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave”). The bragging, brawling rapist may have driven old Dixon down, but only temporarily—he rushes home to collect the DNA evidence from beneath his fingernails and is lauded by the new police chief for doing “real good”. These accolades are confusing, considering that Dixon is no longer a police officer, and the tests revealed that the man he accosted was the wrong guy, but suffice it to say that wrongdoing is rarely punished in this film. Meanwhile, Denise and Jerome are not seen again.

Dixon’s late, misfired crusade unites him with Mildred, but their new relationship is based on a warped sense of justice rather than redemption. Dixon’s hospitalization and his remorse over his beating of Red (but, apparently, no one else), and Mildred’s confession that she was responsible for the conflagration that destroyed the police station, serve to bring these two broken people together not to heal, but to wreak havoc. In his suicide missive to Dixon, Chief Willoughby explained that, “Hate never solved nothin'”, and the conventional narrative would consequently have Dixon amending his ways. A changed man, he would set out to right his past wrongs, beginning with a reopening of the Angela Hayes investigation.

But here’s what we know about these characters by this point: they consistently misplace their vengeance. Dixon threw Red out of his own window in reaction to Mildred’s ads and Willoughby’s suicide; Mildred firebombed the police station in retaliation for her burning billboards, only to learn that Charlie was the arsonist. Both leave innocent bodies in their wake. Anyone in doubt about Mildred’s interest in redemption should revisit her monologic thrashing of the small-town priest. It’s not so much that these two are beyond salvation; it’s just that that’s not what they want. They are singularly hell-bent on revenge, even as their targets change over the course of the film.

The transference of targets—from African Americans to white men in Dixon’s case (“See, Red, I got issues with white folks, too!”), and from the failures of the local police to all rapists in Mildred’s (“If it was me, I’d start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ‘im on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross-reference it, make one-hundred percent certain it was a correct match, then kill him.”)—creates a sort of Venn diagram in which these two oppositional anti-heroes realize their common ground. In the end, racism is treated almost like a minor character eccentricity, the backdrop of these characters’ simultaneous endorsement of eye-for-an-eye justice for murder—and, it appears, almost any eye will do. Dixon desperately clutches his shotgun as he tells Mildred her that the suspect “isn’t your rapist”, but “he is a rapist,” and the weapon serves as an olive branch between these two, which they carefully pack in the station wagon beside the Moonpies as they set out to kill a man in Idaho.

Played for the second time in the film, “Buckskin Stallion Blues” is the soundtrack of this final, subdued scene; Amy Annelle sings wistfully, “If I had a buckskin stallion/ I’d tame him down and ride away”. But if Mildred has tamed Dixon (and that is a big “if”), it is to use his violence to her own ends. As Charlie’s girlfriend, Penelope learned from her bookmark, “All this anger just begets greater anger” (I should note here that the fact that the wide-eyed “zoo girl” with an abusive partner is both a comedic figure and the voice of reason is further indication of Gothic gender politics of this film). In the end, Dixon’s half-witted, hair-trigger temper accompanies Mildred’s long-simmering, grief-fueled rage; her partnership with Dixon is a default endorsement of his racism, and she’s in the driver’s seat.

The soundtrack’s plaintive cry—”Where does that leave me and you?”—as Mildred takes the wheel on their murder mission leaves us with no resolution, just the uncomfortable, ambiguous morality of the Southern Gothic. While this film does nothing to redeem Southern stereotypes, nor does it remotely advance racialized representations in Hollywood, address the issue of gendered violence, or offer a coherent critique of police brutality, it does, perhaps unintentionally, raise questions about the role of white women in supporting white male supremacy. A good man may be hard to find, but so, in Ebbing, is a good woman.