Everyone seems to love 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri'. It's the reviewers' favourite for several Oscars and it would not be too much of a surprise if it won best picture (it already won the Golden Globes for best drama). You can understand why. The screenplay from the Irish writer Martin McDonagh is razor sharp; the performances from the actors stunning (especially Frances McDormand as the ferocious 'heroine', Woody Harrelson as police chief Willoughby and Sam Rockwell as the racist policeman); and the cinematography and music help the intriguing plot along so that the two hours fly by.
I went to see it this weekend and I hated it! It is one of the most depressing and ugliest films I have seen in a long time. Not because it is a racist movie portraying racism in a sympathetic manner – it isn't and it doesn't. Not because it is a very violent movie, it is and it needn't have been. And not because it does the usual stereotypical bad white cop, good black cop routine – that's par for the course, but the film moves beyond the stereotype and gives the racist white cop a human personality. No – I hated the film because its portrayal of American society left me depressed that this is what we have come to (if it were true), and depressed that people think it's brilliant to make an ugly film about racism, violence, abuse, rape and the evil that humans do to one another; and then turn it into a comedy. It just doesn't work.
I'm not convinced that this is an accurate picture of American society today. I too have been to small town America and I don't recognize the ugly picture drawn here. Of course as a Christian realist I realize that there is an evil in every human heart which far too often is expressed in such external ugliness. But the whole picture painted here is one of unremitting darkness, apart from a few flashes of the good side of humanity, suggesting that if only people hadn't been corrupted by the ugly American system everything would have been hunky dory. That system of course includes the corrupt white police and the Catholic Church. Again I have read several reviewers praise the scene where the mild mannered Catholic priest is torn to shreds by the furious foul-mouthed Mildred who equates belonging to the Catholic Church with belonging to a San Francisco street gang, because obviously every Catholic is complicit in the child sexual abuse carried out a small minority of Catholics. I wonder does this mean that every Hollywood actor and actress is guilty of abuse because they belong to a group where it has taken place?
The values that are shared are themselves ugly....equality for women is an equality that allows everyone to be equally crude, violent and foul mouthed. Sex is recreational; the mouth is for swearing and the body for beating. I have read reviews that rejoice that in the name of equality there is at last a tough woman who can use violence as sickeningly as any perverted man. Is that really a reason for rejoicing? There is one scene where the middle aged Mildred kicks one schoolboy in the crotch and just for equality does the same to a schoolgirl. Oh how the audience laughed! At the kind of behaviour that would have anyone locked up in jail and accused of child abuse.
That's where my real problem lay. The people around me in the cinema – doubtless impeccable middle class liberals all – who would regard Donald Trump as the Devil and capital punishment as evil – laughed at jokes about capital punishment, rape, abuse and racism. The film tried to be clever by tying together the darkness of these subjects and the quirkiness and humour of humanity. For me, it just did not work. The same people who shriek in horror at the crudeness of Trump; smiled and laughed at something far worse.
This is not a film about 'us' – it is a film about them. As the Hollywood elites gather for their self-congratulatory party, they will virtue signal like mad about how they have forgotten their Weinsteinian ways (although not their Polanskian apologetics) and are now all for equality and diversity, but meanwhile they will continue to look down their noses at anyone who does not share their values. They will wear their slinky black dresses and their #MeToo badges and yet honour a film that exalts the kind of crudity and violence that would make Donald Trump blush. Why is it that small town America is where you make these kind of 'them' films, not the liberal communities in California or New York? Why is it that it is always white working class Americans (usually males but often the hard bitten sour faced drunken women) who are portrayed as the untermenschen underclass? Is it because you can watch the savages in the Coliseum, and get to peer at their violence, crudity and dysfuntionality, whilst thanking yourselves that you are not like them?
There was one scene that summed up the whole value system and ethos of the film. (Spoiler alert!). The police chief Willoughby, terminally ill with cancer, spends a day with his two daughters and his wife before then killing himself with a gun outside their house. This is portrayed in a sympathetic manner as some kind of understandable and noble act. It was the sheer selfishness of it that stuck in my throat. The pain and suffering caused to his family. And the arrogance of assuming that he had the right and ability to determine how things would pan out.
Three Billboards is a signpost. A signpost to an ugly world where violence, rape and racism are subjects of humour, and where the good and virtuous can thank God that they are not like the dumb peasants who inhabit the world they do not live in. Christianity is so different. We recognize that we are as much sinners as anyone. And the signposts we raise are there to point, not to the ugliness and twistedness of humanity, but to the beauty of Christ, who came to give us beauty for ashes and the oil of joy for mourning, the spirit of praise, for the garment of heaviness. Three Bilboards is a film that left me leaving the cinema with a spirit of heaviness, wishing that I had gone to see The Post instead. That heaviness is not lifted by foolish and inappropriate levity about subjects which are no laughing matter; but rather by the spirit of praise through Jesus.