In John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary, a doctor approaches a priest in a bar. Suffering from knowledge of his own impending murder, the priest is in no mood for what follows: the doctor’s story of a young boy who suddenly became deaf, dumb, blind and paralyzed from a routine operation. The doctor implores the priest:
Think of it! Think when that little boy first regained consciousness. In the dark. You’d be frightened, wouldn’t you? You’d be frightened in the kind of a way that you know the fear is going to end. Has to. Must. Your parents couldn’t be too far away. They’ll come to your rescue. They’ll turn the light on. They’ll talk to you. But… think of it. Nobody comes to rescue you. No light is turned on. You are in the dark. You try to speak… but you can’t. You try to move… but you can’t. You try to cry out. But you are unable to hear your own screams. You are entombed within your own body. Howling with terror.
Why the fuck, in the priest’s words, would the doctor share such a story? The doctor’s answer is brutally inadequate: “No reason.” It’s also the only answer available for the boy as he wonders why he is trapped in the dumb, persistent machinery of a body he no longer controls. The crushing indifference of this evil, the awful randomness through which it enters our lives, obliterates any attempt to make sense of it. God and His church are no longer any help to the priest, as the problem of evil isn’t that God allows it to happen. It’s that there is no reason for evil to happen at all.
There’s another scene, this one from Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story “The Wall,” where we are forced to face death directly: anti-fascist fighter Pablo Ibbieta counts out the final moments of his life, waiting to be thrown against a wall and shot. As with the priest in Calvary, “death disenchanted everything,” emptying Pablo’s life of all meaning. “Nothing,” Ibbieta narrates, “was important” — not the struggle of his cause, not his commitment to his friends, and not the people he loved. Robbed of everything, he searches for one last feeling of gratification by misinforming his captors about the location of his fellow fighter. Pablo smiles. If he is destined to die, he can at least savour one last “fuck you.” Yet at the moment of his execution, he is spared because his comrade was actually found in the location he revealed to the soldiers. Chance renders his life inert, nullifying the last significant choice he made as a human being. His response? He laughs so hard that he cries.
Both of the McDonagh brothers make films that create this feeling — they exasperate you with the human condition until you are left with nothing but laughter or tears, sometimes in the same scene. Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, along with John Michael’s aforementioned Calvary and The Guard, are ‘black comedies’ in the strongest sense because they treat the human experience as a totality. There is no clean demarcation of feeling, intention and effect for us in any of these films because they understand that mortality and cold chance are perpetually confounding our efforts to give our lives meaning. Each moment in almost every scene has the potential to pivot in any direction: a wisecracking hitman is revealed to be haunted by his accidental murder of a child, a policeman’s irreverence for his job masks a capacity for heroic self-sacrifice, and a mother’s unfathomable pain leads to a cathartic clash with her small town’s apathy.
And as expected, there is no attempt to mitigate the tragedy at the center of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. From the first frame onward, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is impossibly burdened with loss: her daughter was raped while dying. Mildred prints this fact clearly on billboards that line a small road leading into her town, and the cold brutality of the injustice suffered by these two women stares directly at the both the town and the film’s audience. Mildred refuses to let us look away.
This view discomforts most residents of the town, including Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), whose failure in solving Angela Hayes’ (Kathryn Newton) case is broadcasted on the billboards. The town and its forces soon start to push against Mildred, and her insistence on upturning the settled comfort of Ebbing’s residents leads to an alienation that is soon followed by violence. At one point, the billboards are set on fire, and officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) mindlessly brutalizes those who infringe upon the authority of Willoughby and his officers. Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) grows to resent his mother, representing the revealed fragility of the connections and relationships that we (and the town) were once able to take as facts of life. The rape and murder suffered by Angela Hayes is thus akin to the murder suffered by the child in In Bruges and the childhood molestation suffered by Jack in Calvary: they are crimes that move beyond the reach of our empathy and understanding, delivered with a terrible, random finality into the lives of these people and the lives of those connected to them.
Three Billboards, like the other McDonagh films, keeps tragedy at its heart; every righteous curse Mildred spits, every relished verbal slap doled out between the characters, and every comedic collision of choice and circumstance happens in the intractable shade of emotional pain. And we soon learn that this a universal condition of the film’s characters: Chief Willoughby, for instance, is forced to watch his young daughters grow up knowing that his pancreatic cancer will soon kill him. In one of the best uses of voice-over narration I have seen in a recent film, Willoughby writes a letter to his family to explain how he has decided to confront his condition. Like Mildred’s billboards (and like Pablo’s final choice in “The Wall”), Willoughby’s letter is his attempt to take control of his tragic circumstances. If we can’t prevent or reverse the pain we are condemned to suffer, we can at least try to cope by making that pain mean something. Mildred’s billboard display gives her daughter’s death the power to disrupt an unjust status quo, and Willoughby’s letter allows him deny his illness control over his final moments. He weaves his pain and love into a story, lending the warmth of his words, of his very presence, to the cold biological calculus that will rob his daughters of a father.
In this way, the characters of Three Billboards feel utterly human. Martin McDonagh emerged first as a playwright, and it shows in how the film (which could work easily and brilliantly on stage) treats its characters. Their choices, made in response to the circumstances thrown at them, arrive at the head of what feels like a lifetime of experiences, experiences that we as an audience are often not privy to. McDonagh ensures that his characters have lived lives beyond our two-hour encounter with them, which means that no character is reducible to a type. We are even given a sense of officer Dixon’s growth into a mediocre policeman whose limited abilities were used by his mother to keep him in line with her racist, retrograde worldview.
Yet the most human quality of Three Billboards is how it uses these characters to remind us of the sheer absurdity that undergirds our lives. It’s more than an experience of absurdity – it’s absurdity as a condition. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus uses the story of the eponymous titan to illustrate this: we strive for meaning in a universe that provides none, pushing a boulder that will always roll back onto us. Camus makes Sisyphus into the absurd hero, as “his scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.” This condition, a condemnation to perpetually struggle to lend some significance to our lives, is tragic because we are conscious of it. Like Sisyphus, we “escape from everyday sleep” only to know the “whole extent” of our “wretched condition.” In our earliest stories, we could personify fate, imagining ourselves at the behest of divine wills and temperaments. We suffered according to a plan, even if we couldn’t understand it. But in modernizing Sisyphus, Camus shows us what we already have experienced to be true: there is no oracle or god we can appeal to, and the fate we scorn is given to us without plan or purpose.
This condition is what most connects us to the characters of Three Billboards. While we may not always be able to fully grasp the extent of their pain, we join these people in their struggle to give sense and meaning to what circumstance has imposed on them. The film resists and critiques our urge to sweep tragedy under the rug of public consciousness, to incorporate it into a comfortable narrative. To the contrary, the message of those billboards will always remain, reverberating through our lives and towns even if we try to burn them down. The pain that is so central to Three Billboards (and all McDonagh films) serves to wake us up to that very fact. It’s a film about characters reconciling themselves to one another, but also to their own suffering and, ultimately, to the absurd condition that makes suffering inevitable. There is no higher power for Mildred to appeal to; she is left to make sense of the senseless, to live in a world where her daughter has been taken from her by an evil that never bothered to know her name.
Thus the film really only leaves us with one question, and it’s one we should already be used to asking ourselves: what the fuck can we actually do? Three Billboards embraces the human totality of its vision, showing us the humor, despair, courage, malevolence and love that arises from our attempts to face our own powerlessness. Like us, the characters of Three Billboards are laden with experiences they didn’t ask for, and the resulting choices they make often exacerbate the chaos of their lives. For Mildred, there will never be peace, but she does find an answer, taken straight from Camus: live in open rebellion. Refuse to accept the limits of your mortality, revolt against the randomness of life’s trajectory, and throw up your middle finger to fate. At one point in the film, Mildred joins Dixon, who himself has been physically maimed from being in the wrong place and the wrong time. Both of these characters have suffered unjustly, both have had to reconcile themselves to the senselessness of their pain. But instead of laughing hysterically, as Pablo does in Sartre’s story, there is a simple joining of hands, a bond made through mutual suffering that is strengthened with shared purpose. There is a realization that our pain, thrown at us by fated circumstance, is the raw material with which we must craft the stories of our lives – it’s how we can reach out to one another. We must suffer, but we don’t have to suffer alone. It is on that note that our two characters set off, unsure of what they’ll do, but certain that they will do it together.
Featured Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures