The Space Between Character Development and Redemption

Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards‘ racist cop is a complex character. That doesn’t mean the film wants us to absolve him.

Even if you have not seen Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, there’s a chance that, as someone who frequents the internet, you have encountered the controversies that have grown in response to the film.

To be clear right off the bat, I am a fan of the film, and of McDonagh in general. He loves dealing with moral complexity and tackling moral issues, but avoids preaching. He’s the sort of storyteller more interested in asking challenging moral questions—the overwhelming guilt felt by a hitman who accidentally kills a child, serial killer killers, the list goes on—than trying to present answers.

Does McDonagh have flaws? Of course. Does Three Billboards have its issues? Sure. But some of the accusations that have been made against the film have become a little… intense. So let’s break it down.

The controversy around Three Billboards has primarily focused on the character of Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist cop with serious anger issues.

I don’t know who first started throwing around the term “redemption arc” in relation to Dixon’s character development. When it comes up in reviews and commentaries on the film, the use of the term in relation to his character is treated as self-evident, with little given in the way of explanation. As someone who never thought to consider Dixon’s narrative a redemptive one until encountering these reviews, I can say with some certainty that it is not. At the start of the film I thought Dixon was a racist cop and at the end of the film I thought Dixon was still a racist who was thankfully no longer a cop.

But maybe I missed something. I saw the film a second time, and also read through several interviews with McDonagh. Maybe he had called it a redemptive arc at some point?  But no, not that I could find. The closest thing I encountered to a mention of redemption was McDonagh saying that he hoped audiences took away a message about the importance of “hope and change” from the film, and perhaps the value of stepping “back from the rage and anger for a little bit.”

After all, if the film takes a definite moral stance on anything, it is anger. From the beginning of the film to the end, anger is consistently depicted as a source of pain and suffering. Mildred’s (Frances McDormand) inability to let go of her anger and hatred, as justified as it may be (at least in some regards), is depicted not just as hugely detrimental to herself but the people around her, especially her son, Robbie. His attempts to at least try to move on with his life and come to terms with the new reality he has to face are repeatedly undermined by Mildred, who appears too consumed by her rage over her daughter’s death, from beginning to end, to even really notice how she has become a source of pain for her surviving child. This is no more evident than in the scene where Mildred puts herself in harm’s way in an attempt to extinguish her burning billboards, even though they are already charred beyond repair and in spite of her son pleading with her to stop.

Anger throughout Three Billboards is depicted as a destructive force that only takes and takes—anger defines Mildred and Angela’s last exchange before her death, anger leads Dixon to defenestrate Red Welby and continue his assault in the street in full view of his new boss, definitively ending his law enforcement career, and anger is depicted to being well on its way to destroying Mildred’s relationship with her surviving child.

While both Mildred and Dixon demonstrate at least one small instance of letting go of at least some of their anger—Mildred towards her ex-husband, Dixon towards Mildred and her billboard campaign—when they head off on their potentially murderous road trip, they are still hanging on to their anger like life rafts, there is at least some room left to hope that they might change their minds.

The matter of rage and letting go of rage, however, is completely separate from the concept of redemption. Letting go of rage is an entirely personal, internal, individual thing, while redemption fundamentally involves external validation. And to be clear, if the film did externally validate Dixon’s life choices, I too would be angry.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, redemption is “expiation or atonement for a crime, sin, or offense.” Dixon taking on Angela Hayes’ case as a personal crusade does not correspond to any of his crimes or offenses depicted or described in the film. Even if he had managed to catch her killer, it would not be a redemptive act, because it is an entirely unrelated incident.

As the letter left by Willoughby seems to inspire Dixon’s change of heart towards the case, it seems more accurate to say that his second act crusade is directly correlated to his dismissal from the police force: if he solves a seemingly unsolvable crime, well, they would just have to give him his job back, wouldn’t they? And then he could become a detective and live up to Willoughby’s hopes for him!

This is, of course, not how the real world works—we are given no reason to think there is any chance Dixon will get his job back, and that is absolutely a good thing—but it is also definitely how a white guy with a deep-seated sense of entitlement would think.

Dixon’s actions do not redeem him of anything—not of racism, not of police brutality, and not even of being a generally inept cop (come on, getting names when taking statements is Policing 101).  Yes, his character does develop over the course of the film. He is shown to possess at least a scant handful of good qualities—he loves his turtle, he hates rapists, and is capable of doing nice things on occasion (at least for white people). This does not excuse any of his bad qualities or the terrible things he has done. It just makes him human.

Leaving the theater after seeing Three Billboards for a second time, I heard one moviegoer ask his date a question which I have seen more than one online commentator bring up as a point of contention: “Why humanize someone like that?”

The answer is very simple—because racists are human. And while some racists are proud KKK members or people who put up a good front while secretly being evil to the core a la Get Out, the majority are not. That does not make their prejudice less unacceptable.

As I’ve discussed before, it is important to, at least on occasion, portray the humanity of people who do terrible things. This is not because we should excuse them, but because the false belief that people cannot both do nice things and be guilty of something terrible is still one that runs rampant, as seen in the fallacious defenses from friends or co-workers that more often than not crop up in response to things like assault allegations.

At the end of the day, racism and race relations are not the central focus of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Racism in the film is just sort of there. And more than a few people are really bothered by that. One critic, for example, argued that Three Billboards “didn’t need its racist cop.” Why couldn’t he have just been a more non-specific bigot?

Well, the fact of the matter is that there are racist cops out there. No one needs them, but they exist anyway.

In an interview with Den of Geek, McDonagh stated that, “I might be very PC in my real life but I don’t believe that I need to be so on stage or screen, it’s much more interesting to try to capture how people in these situations actually do speak, without any kind of judgement or holding back.”

Do the characters within the film, even Mildred, treat deadly serious matters like racism and police brutality with the caution and gravity they should? Hell no. On more than one occasion they practically become punchlines. And no, that’s not right, but it’s truthful. It’s not how people should behave, but it is how at least some people actually do. I’m a biracial woman who is (relatively) white-passing. I remember noticing as a kid how people in the predominantly white area I grew up would make different kinds of racially-charged comments when they thought there was only other white people around. I remember observations of racially-charged things that were noticeable and consistent enough that they often left me feeling deeply uncomfortable, but subtle enough that as a kid I often couldn’t figure out how to accurately verbalize them.

As I mentioned before, racism is just there in Three Billboards. And yeah, it’s uncomfortable. But the thing is that I don’t need Martin McDonagh to tell me racism is bad. I know it is. And I much prefer the way he leaves the racist overtones and undertones that quite often exist in real life rather than scrubbing them out because they are ugly and not the central focus of the narrative. When you do that you end up with is last year’s The Beguiled, which manages to be set in Virginia during the Civil War with hardly a mention of race at all—made possible by removing the character of the slave Hallie, present both in the novel and the 1971 adaptation, as well as the matter of Edwina’s being secretly mixed race and passing as white. Ultimately, between these two options, I much prefer the former approach over the latter, though it too is admittedly not without its shortcomings. But when storytelling defaults to the latter it only helps contribute to false conceptions that racism isn’t a present-day reality—that it’s a problem we have somehow solved.

McDonagh has never made a film centered around race, but his films have always at least acknowledged the prevalence of racism in everyday reality, from Ken coming to work for Harry as a hitman in In Bruges because Harry helped him find and kill the man responsible for the death of his wife, a black woman, when the police were unhelpful, to the story of Hans and Myra in Seven Psychopaths. Racism and matters of race relations are parts of life always, not just when they are the central topic of discussion, and McDonagh’s works have consistently reflected that. In political times as polarized as these ones, storytellers can end up veering towards safer ground. While there are certain fields and elements of life in which the safer ground is truly more favorable, I firmly believe art should not be one of them.

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