McDonagh and Haggis are both sinewy edgelords. But different kinds.
One movie that a lot of people think is going to win a lot of Oscars next month is Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Set in the fictional town of Ebbing and detailing a lone woman’s quest for justice it contains the kind of mild pertinence known to attracts award bodies. It may be this consequentialism that has made the movie this year’s villain, the movie too obviously made for awards that enjoying them feels gauche. Per The Ringer’s Miles Surrey, this makes Three Billboards this year’s La La Land, this year’s The Revenant, this year’s Argo. But a more interesting comparison, first made by Ira Madison III in the Daily Beast last December, has Three Billboards playing the role of 2004’s Crash, the Paul Haggis movie that won a Best Picture Oscar in 2005. It’s a comparison that’s stuck, echoing slightly into the either.
But Crash and Three Billboards make for an interesting comparison nonetheless Both are movies that employ racist police officers to narrative effect, extracting narrative foibles out of a popular symbol of power and oppression. On a larger scale, they are both movies that purport to be about “America” but accomplish this in the key of small and very personal stories told by acclimated outsiders. Haggis was Canadian writer who moved to LA to get his scripts produced and famously got the idea for Crash after getting carjacked and discovering that he was very curious about the backstory of his assailants, an idea that he pondered for over a decade. McDonagh, a popular Irish playwright, came up with the idea while driving across America two decades ago and noticing that Americans really liked billboards and saying things on them. His dramas, which had mostly been small contained affairs before, now expanded his terrain to every inch of his small town Americana walking us through intimate scenes between the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) and his wife (Abbie Cornish) and a racist cop, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), and his mother (Sandy Martin). We find out that Willoughby is dying of cancer. We find out that a sales clerk is a particular fan of Flannery O’ Conner’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. It’s abundance of facts, disarmingly cute, feels almost disorienting. His previous movie, Seven Psychopaths, has been his first to be filmed in America and had a similarly curious fasciation with racial politics and the dramaturgical event of a white guy, Woody Harrelson again, saying the n-word. In that movie, Harrelson says it before killing the movie’s only black character with a speaking role. Three Billboards, on the other hand, featured less shooting.
“I don’t think there’s a single human being in Crash,” Ta Nehisi Coates wrote, in 2009, over half a decade after Crash had left theaters. In the time between, and since, Crash was remembered as the ‘Worst Best Picture Choice Ever,’ the ‘Most Overrated Oscar Best Picture Winner,’ and ranks highly among ‘the Biggest Oscar Night Mistake Ever Made. In 2015, the Academy basically recanted it. Worse than being forgotten like many Oscar winners, and open to occasional reevaluation, was it’s provocation of the same knee-jerk dismissiveness a decade away from the context of any echo chamber. “At a moment when race relations and police brutality remain at the forefront of the national conversation, Crash should be as timely as ever,” Tim Grierson wrote in 2016, “It isn’t.”
What should be timely about Crash is its police force that, like our own, is notable for doing bad things. In Haggis’ burning LA epic, they are stalwart symbols of everyday systemic terror. In one of the movie’s primary set-ups, an LAPD officer named John Ryan (Matt Dillon) pulls over and then sexually assaults Christine Thayer (Thandie Newton), the wife of a black movie executive who resists a racially motivated stop-and-frisk stop. Ryan’s partner, Tom Hansen (Ryan Phillippe), is set up as the good, non-racist, cop and requests to work with another person who is less racist. But then, toward the movie’s end, Hansen meets a black hitchhiker named Peter Waters (Larenz Tate) and shoots him at point-blank range. He does this after a scene where he tries to empathize with him but then sees Peter reach into his coat to pull a thing, which turns out to be a statuette of a popular Christian saint that Hanson mentions being fond of, that Hansen thinks is a gun because he is racist and then kills Peter. This is racism reenacted both as a coordinated system of malice and a randomized unit of terrorism.
What got the goats of critics about this treatment was not the realistic details of day-to-day institutionalized racism but what Haggis does with them. A day after assaulting Christine, the overtly racist cop, Ryan, comes across a flipped-over car that is about to explode. Before rescuing its trapped passenger, he stops to realize that the passenger is Christine, the person he had racist feeling about. Christine also stops trying to escape in order to realize this. In the movie’s most insipidly iconic shot, the two are in a tangled embrace, Dillon’s eyes steely pressing ahead as if waiting to be embossed into marble. “Crash‘s central message,” Richard Kim wrote in The Nation that year, “is [that] there’s a lot of racism in the world, but it’s all rendered meaningless by a magical force.”
Three Billboards, it’s critics contend, renders racism meaningless but through the more liminal apparatus of not caring very much about it. “Crash was a gravely misguided and awful movie,” Jack Mirkinson, an editor at Splinter, wrote, “but it tried to take its subject seriously; Three Billboards doesn’t even do that.” American racism interests McDonagh as a purely linguistic exercise, it appears as a bad word that badass people say. In a much-talked about scene between Mildred, the woman on the quest for justice, and Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a cop in the way of the quest for justice, Mildred asks Dixon if he is still in “the ni**r-torturing business.” Earlier, when appearing on television to promote her quest for justice, she proclaims that “it seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crimes.” Like the rape and murder that is the subject of Mildred’s quest, any torturing occurs off-screen. What McDonagh intends to signify with the phrase remains peculiarly vague. We’re welcome to imagine it, in his choice of magnanimously locating his movie in the same state that Michael Brown was executed by a police offer in point-blank range, as something like that but the word “torturing” also feels like a lot more work and, perhaps, the image of Eric Garner being tortured to death by police in Staten Island comes to mind.
Next to Crash, this seems like a curiously adroit update; instead of absurdly ornate images of racial violence and sexual assault, McDonagh dishes them with a breezy callousness and doesn’t feel any need to show us because, after all, we’ve seen the videos on the news or YouTube. We can project Rockwell’s plastically American face onto those blurry images of roadside beatings, the menacing khaki that’s always standing above the beaten faces of the semi-publicly tortured. Haggis needed to create specific images because, in the words of Roger Ebert’s curiously positive opinion, he is “telling parables.” Ebert, among the few critics who considered Crash a very important addition to the culture, continues: “The characters learn the lessons they have earned by their behavior.” This is also, on the other hand, elemental to what people hated about Crash, that it’s narrative would ultimately find redemption for somebody who behaves so monstrously on screen. Dixon, whose on-screen monstrosities are largely, but not entirely (he does defenestrate a dude), limited to the unshot Chekov guns of pure description, remains, in McDonagh’s words, “capable of change and of hope.”
Haggis, by his own admission, intended the whole thing as a larger kind of agit-prop provocation. In a conversation with Scott Foundas in Film Comment at the end of the decade, Haggis had rethought his Oscar-winning movie as “a good social experiment,” intended to “fuck with people, because I was so angry.” McDonagh enjoys fucking with people but it is less clear if he is doing this out of any particular rage or for any other, larger, discernible reason. In In Bruges, his feature debut, an assassin (Colin Farrell) kills a random child, albeit accidentally, and the movie demands we both consider this a major moral faux pas and also sympathize with the killer enough to watch him evade punishment by a very menacing Ralph Fiennes who also curses a lot. His dramaturgical work, similarly, feature children killing their parents (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “The Lonesome West”), further violence against children (“The Pillowman”), and more Americans being racist (“A Behanding in Spokane”). In a review of the last one of those, McDonagh’s first production set in the United States, Hilton Als accused McDonagh of using blackness as “a Broadway prop” but the same could be said of any other violated more in his oeuvre.
McDonagh seems to care less than Haggis and that’s something that ultimately makes watching Crash and Three Billboards feel like fundamentally different experiences even if they’re made of very similar parts. Admirers of Crash felt educated about something, Ebert, who ended up naming Crash his film of the year, had opulently predicted that “anyone seeing [Crash] is likely to be moved to have a little more sympathy for people not like themselves.” and it’s that earnest sensibility that had permeated the air, the kind of noxious equivalence that would hang over the decade to come. When, four years later, a recently elected Barrack Obama would invite an actually racist policeman to the White House to meet with Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard academic that the policeman had arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after arresting him for breaking into his own house, you know with his keys, it felt like a Crash moment. If only they could look into each other’s eyes like Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton, perhaps something, like that ‘little more sympathy’ Ebert was going on about, could transpire. Eight years later, much like Crash, this seems quaint.
Instead, in McDonagh’s world, the racist policeman isn’t really redeemed. He’s just kind of an idiot and stays around until bombastic coincidence, that tool so beloved by McDonagh and Haggis both, intervenes. Shortly after Chief Willoughby writes in his suicide note that crimes like the rape and murder of Hayes daughter are often solved when somebody confesses them in the proverbial barroom years later, Dixon hears somebody confesses to that crime in an actual barroom. Like the “torturing black folk,” this exists entirely as another textual joke, a signifier of McDonagh’s wittiness as a writer and his background as a playwright. This suddenly gives Dixon’s life meaning again, another joke because we learn that his information has a dubious connection to hard DNA truth, and then, suddenly, Hayes, who had previously accused Dixon of torturing people and at least sounded vaguely like she cared, goes on a road trip with him to find this guy because that’s also a kind of cute American pastiche to end things on. He isn’t redeemed morally but is saved by the miracle of the self-aware cliché, which is the only real value us godless filmgoing Americans really have anymore.
You feel like, if Haggis had written Three Billboards, Hayes would have bonded not with the regional violent white trash bum but with glasses-wearing Abercrombie (Clarke Peters), the black police chief who takes over the Ebbing, Missouri police force after Willoughby kills himself, like Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank do in Million Dollar Baby, the Clint Eastwood movie that Haggis penned right before making Crash. This would signify a kind of narrative neatness we all used to believe in, before we became so jaded. That our struggles could be added up together into one by the populist democracy of our large-scale fictions. Instead, for a few extended seconds after Hayes burns down the police station, Abercrombie and Hayes look into eachother’s eyes as if McDonagh is seriously debating whether he cares. He, and the movie, shrugs and then moves on.