Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Achilles and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

This whole thing is spoilers and won't make a lick of sense if you haven't seen the movie, so go away if that's the case.

What's The Iliad  about? 

The Trojan War, right? 

No. Achilles? 

No, not really. 

It's about rage. About doomed and ruinous anger.  It's an anger of Achilles, but he does not control it. It controls him and controls the work as a whole.  It is directly because of his rage that his beloved friend is killed.  It is because of his rage that foes and friends alike die.  

Watching Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, I was struck by the explosive rage of the two characters, Mildred Hayes and Jason Dixon, both of whom use later excuses to justify giving into their pre-existing fury.

Mildred is a single mother in a dead end job.  Her husband was abusive and then left her for a girl barely older than their daughter.  That's a life of justifiable rage.  Then her daughter is raped and murdered.

Mildred's rage was there prior to her daughter's death.  It was evident in her scream of "I hope you do get raped!" the last time she saw Angela.  

Mildred harms the innocent.  She wounds the pastor who comes to talk to her with her words.  She drills a hole in the dentists thumb(nail) (though it seemed as though he were trying to harm her with the drill, she could simply have left).  She kicks teenagers in the groin without knowing if they were the ones who threw a drink at her car.  She harms her friend and boss by allowing her rage to get her friend/boss thrown into jail and held without bail.

Of course, the main person she harms in the movie is Sheriff Willoughby.  She wounds him on a level of honor, for not catching her daughter's killer. He was not the killer and there was nothing more he could do. He's an innocent. Not only is he an innocent, he's dying.  Her anger does not care.  She must rage, and so, even after his death, the billboard that was burned down goes back up with his name on it.

Chief Willoughby is her contrast. He too has reasons to be furious, first and foremost being his terminal cancer despite having a young wife and small children.  He has every reason to be angry that Mildred has attacked him as he's dying, knowing there's nothing he can do.  After he has his episode and coughs blood on her face and has to be taken away by ambulance, his last official words as a sheriff are "let her go."  Unlike Mildred, he chooses to let go.  Not only does he choose to stop fighting her, he helps her, by paying for the billboard for another month (which is also, as he says, a chess move, but I do believe he sincerely hoped his gesture would help allay her rage).  Unlike Dylan Thomas' exhortation to Rage against the dying of the light, he makes his peace with what rightly could have made him angry and moves past it.

Mildred, of course, didn't learn from or accept his magnanimity; she can't.  After he died, she gives in to her unadulterated rage and tries to burn down his office.   At that point, she's beyond thought. There is no positive aspect to her torching the station; in fact, were it not for Jason Dixon's action, her daughter's file would have been destroyed (perhaps including the DNA evidence they did have of the killer).  Getting justice is not her goal. Raging is all she has.

Jason Dixon is a fool and a racist and a bully.  He's also a closeted gay man who lives with a domineering mother.  He has a life of rage that, while not justifiable, is understandable.  Then the man who believed in him died.

Chief Willoughby says at one point, "If you got rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings then you’d have three cops left and all o’ them are gonna hate the fags so what are ya gonna do, y’know?"  A way to look at that is that in the rankings for who's lower in society, the closeted gay man must assert himself above the "persons of color", which he has apparently done off screen in an incident referred to as torture. He might be gay, but at least he's better than the blacks, he might justify to himself.  (Obviously pointing out what he's doing is not condoning the behavior.)

Dixon most probably tortured an innocent black man. He routinely attempts to bully or attempts to intimidate others, though a point that isn't noted by many is that his intimidation and bullying don't actually work.  The billboard painter mouths off to him and spits at him at the beginning of the film. Red stands up to him at the bar and in his office (prior to the great exception, of course) and Mildred bursts in and calls him a fuckhead and he just takes it.  He's a stupid little man who reads comic books and whose mother puts any real thoughts in his head and everyone there knows it. And he knows they know it.  He's impotent, that we see, but it's clear that he's furious about his impotence.

And then Willoughby dies and Dixon uses that to justify finally acting. And so he grotesquely assaults Red and Red's assistant.  But his rage only works against the weak and he's not actually changed.  Minutes later he's shamed and fired and he's back to his impotence.

Dixon's counter is Red, as we see at the hospital.  Red is a frail, weak, stupid man, but, unlike Dixon (ordinarily), he stands up for himself and will not allow himself to be badgered or disrespected. The chief and desk sergeant try to get him to back down and he refuses.  Dixon drunkenly bullies him at the bar and he insults Dixon right back.  After what Dixon does to him, Red had every right to be furious and, since this is a film about explosive rage masquerading as revenge or justice, he could have harmed Dixon right back in the hospital. Instead, like Chief Willoughby, he lets it go and chooses not to be defined by his anger.

I have seen reviews that claim that Jason Dixon and Mildred Hayes get redemption by the end of the film.  No. They are not redeemed. They are still just as flawed and awful at the end of the movie as they were at the beginning.  I did not see a movement away from rage at the end of the movie, a requirement for any talk of redemption.  What I saw was that the two furious characters were incapable of stopping their anger, so they end the movie contemplating pointing it in a direction where it might serve some function, where it will harm the person or persons who "deserve" it rather than be responsible for harming the innocent.

Near the end of the movie, Mildred torches the "midget" and never fixes it. It is important to understanding her character that she does not fix things with him.  She could not fix things with him even as, moments later, she stood up for her ex's ditzy girlfriend. And I believe that was because she could use her rage to protect the ditz. Her ex-husband was trembling when she approached them.  Her rage could not fix what she did to the "midget."  As for Jason, he was going to kill himself (raging against himself) and it was only when he considered going with her, so he could focus his rage externally and, perhaps, positively, that he gave up on shooting himself.

Obviously murder or killing vigilantism is a large step for either Jason or Mildred. Mildred is the angrier of the two, but Jason appeared willing to kill himself, so who's to say what he'd be willing to do once he'd reached that point.  For her it's a level higher than she's gone yet, but that does not lead me to believe she won't. Particularly knowing that she's going to recognize the stranger and remember him threatening her.  Why was he several states away in the middle of nowhere Missouri when he's from Idaho?  When he was telling the story to his compatriot at the bar, he says there were two others with him. Perhaps one of them has the elusive DNA?  Are his accomplices his perfect alibi since the authorities don't know they're looking for three men and not one?  The stranger confronts her after Willoughby's death, but the incident at the bar happens at least weeks if not months later (Dixon's wounds have scarred by then). Why was he back in Ebbing, Missouri? Killers coming back to the scene is a known trope.  I do not think it a great stretch to think that Mildred would do the stranger great harm and that Jason, bolstered by her, wouldn't do the same.

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is not The Iliad. In The Iliad, the scene of Priam, a  grieving father, coming to his greatest enemy, Achilles, and asking for the corpse of his slain son Hector is such a touching human moment that it breaks Achilles' anger and the work can end once we see the final result of that ruinous anger in the funeral of Hector.  If Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri were similar, if Mildred Hayes and Jason Dixon were to be redeemed, it would have ended at Willoughby's funeral, after Mildred and Jason got his final messages.  

But it didn't end that way, because their continuing rage wouldn't allow it.

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