“I know this is America, you can believe anything you want to believe but, uh … C’mon? These guys aren’t even in the ballpark.”
– Dennis Miller, The Off-White Album, 1988
Sunday, February 11th, I had the pleasure of watching my favorite movie so far of, the admittedly young, 2018 – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I loved it, and was genuinely happy that something so challenging had gotten so many award nominations. So imagine my surprise when I woke up the next morning, prepared my breakfast, and sat down at the iMac to catch up on the news and discovered that apparently, several critics saw a completely different version of the film that I just watched not 8 hours earlier …
“I think festival audiences are so used to the centrality of white people’s inner lives treated as the Actual Emotional Stakes that they don’t get what’s janky about a movie set in a town where cops torture black [people] but the plot is about thwarted justice for a white lady.”
– Gene Demby, NPR
“I also think about it in movie theaters, particularly when I’m at a movie that uses race as a narrative vehicle — a movie that uses black people as part of a storytelling device, but doesn’t cater to black people or show the faces of (m)any black people onscreen.”
– Hanif Abdurraqub, Pacific Standard
“I think there’s a strong argument to be made that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri would be a stronger movie if Dixon were either absent from the film or didn’t have a moral awakening… And his redemption doesn’t merely defang his previous venomous bigotry; it softens Mildred’s character development.”
– Alyssa Rosenberg, The Washington Post
None of these reviews represent the movie that I saw. In fact to me, each reads like it was written by someone that didn’t listen to Yoda’s warning on Dagobah:
The movie that I saw wasn’t about the “thwarted justice for a white lady.” Or about “black people as part of a storytelling device.” Or about how a character’s “redemption doesn’t … defang his previous venomous bigotry”.
The movie that I saw was about something much simpler.
No one is 100 percent righteous. No one (short of a murderer) is 100 percent irredeemable. The world is not black and white; it’s entirely shades of gray. You’re never going to like everything about anyone.
Mildred is an awful person. She tortured Chief Willoughby even though he exhausted all of the resources at his disposal and felt like shit about not being able to solve the murder. Her last words to her daughter, “Well, I hope you get raped on the way, too” were horrific. She set a police station on fire. AND she didn’t sleep with Tyrion!
Be careful, Mildred. He doesn’t do well with rejection.
Dixon was in no way redeemed (in fact, when he ended up in the hospital with Red after the fire, I told my wife that if I were in Welby’s shoes, I would have beaten Dixon to death with my cast or smothered him with a pillow in his sleep). His reputation as a torturer of African Americans wasn’t a punchline; it was shorthand for “piece of shit.” He beat Red Welby and threw him through a second story window for doing his job, which while itself an unforgivable act, also led him to assault Welby’s female assistant.
Chief Willoughby was a selfish coward. He took the easy way out of an admittedly bleak future while abandoning his family, his responsibility to find the killer of Mildred’s daughter and his responsibility to help heal his town from both the investigation and Dixon’s reign of racist terror.
And yet, Mildred’s cause was still righteous. Dixon still made an effort to do the right thing even though it cost him a severe beating. Chief Willoughby still made Mildred laugh by telling her that he funded her billboard partially to leave her squirming after his death. These are all deeply flawed people in a deeply flawed place just trying to get through their lives.
And that’s the point of Dixon and Mildred’s homicidal road trip – neither’s motive for searching for the “could be a rapist” from the bar is just, and neither is sure what they should actually do when they find him; they’re going to decide on the way. Because that’s also the point of the movie.
All anyone can ever do is make better decisions today than they did yesterday.
Life, like the cave, and the movie theater, is filled with whatever you decide to carry with you.
Tony Marion is a writer and filmmaker who splits time between Lancaster, PA and Baltimore, MD. He lives for the work of Descendents (the band), Chuck Palahniuk and Rian Johnson. Check out the digital embodiment of procrastination he calls his website here.