Klavan On The Culture

Three Billboards: A Surprising Meditation on God's Grace


I don’t care about super hero movies. They tell me they represent an American mythology, but it’s a childish mythology: heroics without tragedy — and there are no heroics without tragedy. It’s mildly annoying that leftist identity mongers have co-opted such a popular form to reimagine history as it never was: a woman wins the battles of World War I; an African nation invents Western civilization. But then, Superman was never a particularly realistic representation of Truth, Justice and the American Way either. So why shouldn’t women and black people have childish fantasies too?

In any case, I spent Black Panther’s record breaking weekend going to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriIt’s a lovely little film which, surprisingly, turns out to be a meditation on God’s grace in the midst of evil. (I am not the first person to notice this.) As I’ve commented before, so much so-called “Christian” film-making is G-rated, happy-talk trash, it’s just an absolute joy to come upon a grown-up work which — as telegraphed by an early appearance of a character reading the Catholic Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find — deals with God’s presence in the midst of real and terrible life.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred, an Ebbing woman whose daughter has been raped and murdered. The crime has gone unsolved for seven months, so she rents three billboards that question the competence of the town’s Police Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson. (All the actors in the film are terrific. Harrelson is spectacularly great.) From the very start, you expect this to be a story about a tough feminist taking on sexist, racist corruption. But the film wrong-foots those boring expectations almost immediately. Mildred is a sympathetic character but no heroine. She’s unpleasant and unkind throughout. Chief Willoughby, on the other hand, turns out to be a more or less decent guy, suffering from a fatal illness. He just couldn’t catch a break in solving the murder. When he asks Mildred what she would have had him do to break the case, she unleashes a series of vengeful fantasies against the male population which, as Willoughby points out, would violate their civil rights. Even in the face of evil and injustice, freedom must be preserved.

It is only after Willoughby dies, that you realize he is — and has been all along — a stand-in for the Christian Godhead, radiating the terrible grace of freedom and forgiveness on the good and the bad alike. Mildred’s billboards are an understandable expression of grief and fury against that God: why, if He is good, is there evil and injustice in the world? But evil is part and parcel of the freedom Willoughby (i.e. God) protects.

At the core of the story is Willoughby’s seemingly incomprehensible patience with his mind-bogglingly stupid and racist officer Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell. How can he let this awful character continue at his station? But after Willoughby dies, you realize he has treated Dixon as God would treat him: accepting his wickedness with patient love while offering him a path to grace.

The final scene is one of the best resolutions of a film story in years: Mildred and Dixon, two miserable people, coming together on a journey of vengeance — and just beginning to wonder if there might not be another way. Unlike most “Christian” films, it’s moving and uplifting stuff because it’s so true to the hearts we have and the life we know.

Apparently, there’s been some controversy about the film after leftists realized that what seemed like a feminist screed was, in fact, something else entirely. Well, good. Feminists have lost their way. Let them go and watch another showing of Wonder Woman and assuage their endless anger with dreams of a world that never was. Three Billboards is about this world, and the God who loves it in all its terrible beauty.

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