Local adman Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) is reading when Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) storms into his office near the beginning of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). Mildred is there to buy advertisements on three dilapidated billboards along a lonely road outside of town. She wants to shame the Ebbing police department for its failure to find the man who raped and murdered her teenaged daughter. The billboards will be “three monuments to death,” as my daughter-in-law put it: “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests?”; and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” It’s a plea for justice from a mother whose grief has condensed into rage.
Red is reading Flannery O’Connor’s collection of short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find. (In a pitch-perfect O’Connoresque touch, Red is only pretending to read while he peeks over the book to ogle his secretary.) O’Connor’s title captures one facet of Mildred’s quest. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a good man and a decent cop, but he’s dying of cancer; his deputy, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is not a good man but a violent racist; Mildred’s ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), is shacking up with a nineteen-year-old girl; the only man who wants to date Mildred is the town dwarf (Peter Dinklage). In Ebbing, a good man truly is hard to find.
It’s not just the title. The book is a hint that writer and director Martin McDonagh has put us in an O’Connor world. As:
In O’Connor’s South and in Ebbing, Missouri, the world is wild and violent, a gothic mid-space suspended in a creaky old town located somewhere between heaven and hell. Nobody living there, whether they’re obsessed with justice or loving toward their family or just living a banally boring life, is inherently good. But sometimes, if you squint and let your guard down just for a moment, a bit of grace worms its way through the cracks anyhow.
You do have to squint to see the grace. It isn’t grace in any robustly theological sense. That door is slammed early in the film. Mildred comes home to find a priest, Fr. Montgomery (Nick Searcy), at the kitchen table with her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). Fr. Montgomery tries to convince Mildred to take down the billboards, but she denounces him for being part of a church of pedophiles: “You joined the gang. You’re culpable.” Fr. Montgomery doesn’t reappear. Whatever hope there is in Ebbing won’t come through the church.
Nor is there any repentance, no clearing of the slate. Mildred firebombs the police station, but is regretful when she discovers that Dixon is inside—not regretful enough, mind you, to turn herself in. Critics howled at the film’s indulgence toward Dixon, who never pays for his brutal bigotry. They’ve been less outraged about Mildred, who only gets away with arson.
Dixon loses his job after he throws Welby out of his second-story office window, but later he makes an effort to solve the case—though in the end he proposes to hunt down and kill a substitute who had nothing to do with Mildred’s daughter. Even after he’s survived purgatory, Dixon grasps at the nearest scapegoat to relieve the pressure of Mildred’s vengefulness. Whatever this grace is, it doesn’t issue in justice.
Still, there is something vaguely resembling grace in Ebbing, Missouri, and it comes largely through Chief Willoughby. Thinking to spare his young wife years of sacrifice and agony, he kills himself after an idyllic family day at the lake. He intends his suicide (however misguidedly) as a self-sacrificial act—and it shifts the trajectory of the action, because Willoughby continues to speak from the grave as “dead Willoughby,” in letters posted before his death. His letter to Mildred convinces her that he did all he could with a bad case, and expresses the sincere hope that, by some stroke of luck, justice will finally be done. Her anger cools, and during a tense dinner date she hands an unfinished bottle of wine to Charlie and his girlfriend. Willoughby’s letter to Dixon explains the roots of Dixon’s anger and finds virtue in Dixon that the movie hasn’t shown. When he thinks he’s found the murderer, Dixon acts shrewdly and self-sacrificially to gather evidence.
The contrast between McDonagh the lapsed Catholic and O’Connor the hillbilly Thomist isn’t a stark one. In her last moments, the grandmother in O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” recognizes the Misfit as one of her own children, just before he shoots her three times in the chest. If it’s a moment of saving insight, it’s an ambiguous one.
Still, there is a contrast. For O’Connor, God is, and so justice and grace are real. The film is merely wistful. While Mildred tends flowers at the billboards, a fawn comes out of the woods and grazes quietly nearby. Mildred talks to the fawn: “Still no arrests. How come, I wonder? ’Cos there ain’t no God and the world’s empty and it don’t matter what we do to each other?” In grace-haunted Ebbing, Missouri, all she can muster by way of answer is, “Ooh, I hope not.”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
Promotional still from IMDb.