McDonagh and Haggis are both edgelords. But different kinds.
One movie that is probably going to win some Oscars next month is Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Set in the fictional town of Ebbing and detailing a woman’s quest for justice it contains the kind of broadly-stroked story traditionally celebrated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The obviousness of that choice has also made the movie this year’s villain; the rich incumbent for leaner stories to upstage. Miles Surrey at The Ringer says this makes Three Billboards this year’s La La Land, The Revenant and Argo rolled in one. But a more interesting comparison, first made by Ira Madison III in the Daily Beast last December, has Three Billboards playing the role of Crash, the Paul Haggis movie that won a Best Picture Oscar in 2005. The comparison has stuck on the lips, echoing slightly into the either.
Crash and Three Billboards make for an interesting comparison nonetheless. Both are movies that occupy police officers with major roles and equip them with everyday racism and turns these stories into parables about power and oppression. They are both movies that purport also to be about “America”—Haggis’s deliberate demographic sampling of LA, McDonagh’s choice to invent a city and plop it in the literal middle of the country. Yet they stories they tell are both of outsiders, much like their creators. Haggis was a Canadian writer who moved to LA to get his scripts produced and famously got the idea for Crash after getting carjacked and pondering what it might mean for over a decade. McDonagh, a popular Irish playwright, discovered his conceit while driving across America and noticing that Americans really liked billboards.
And like Haggis, McDonagh tries very hard to tell his movie through the voices of a community that he manufactures to tell it, walking us through intimate scenes between the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) and his wife (Abbie Cornish); Dixon (Sam Rockwell), his racist deputy, and Dixon’s mother (Sandy Martin). We find out that Willoughby is dying of cancer. We find out that the corner billboard sales clerk is a particular fan of Flannery O’ Conner’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. Three Billboards is abundance of facts, disarmingly cute, almost disorienting. McDonagh’s previous movie, Seven Psychopaths, was been his first to take place in America and it too told stories fascinated with acts of violence and racial politics; a white guy, Woody Harrelson again, says the n-word; Mexican stand-offs in the desert. In Seven Psychopaths, Harrelson says it before killing the movie’s only black character with a speaking role. Three Billboards features somewhat less shooting.
“I don’t think there’s a single human being in Crash,” Ta Nehisi Coates infamously wrote over half a decade after Crash had left theaters. Crash’s infamy long outlasted it’s surprise Oscar win, 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. The Academy eventually, in 2015, basically recanted its decision. Worse than being forgotten and open to occasional reevaluation, its second life was that of illustrative prop of Hollywood’s failed social imagination. “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.”
In Haggis’ burning LA epic, police are stalwart symbols of the state’s capacity for systemic terror. In one of the movie’s primary set-ups, an LAPD officer named John Ryan (Matt Dillon) pulls over and sexually assaults Christine Thayer (Thandie Newton), the wife of a black movie executive who resists a stop-and-frisk stop that we’re given to understand is racially motivated. Ryan’s partner, Tom Hansen (Ryan Phillippe), is set up opposite him, a good, non-racist, cop who requests to work with another person who is less racist. Toward the movie’s end, however, Hansen meets a black hitchhiker named Peter Waters (Larenz Tate) and shoots him at point-blank range. This moment follows a scene where Hansen tries very hard to empathize with Peter but then sees him reach into his coat to pull something out, which turns out to be a statuette of a popular Christian saint that Hanson mentions being fond of, but Hansen thinks is a gun because he, too, is racist, a discovery that costs Peter his life.
But there was more. A day after assaulting Christine, Ryan, the overtly racist cop, comes across a flipped-over car that is about to explode. Before rescuing its trapped passenger, he stops to make the realization that the passenger is Christine, the person he sexually assaulted. Christine also stops trying to escape in order to realize this. This leads to the movie’s most iconic shot, wherein the two are in a tangled embrace, Dillon’s eyes like dots crudely drawn on a bar of steel, pressing ahead and waiting to be embossed into marble. Critics, if not the Academy, thought this was a bit much. “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 also renders racism meaningless through the more subtle manner of selectively ignoring it. “Crash was a gravely misguided and awful movie,” Jack Mirkinson, wrote in Splinter, “but it tried to take its subject seriously; Three Billboards doesn’t even do that.” McDonagh in interested in racism as a purely linguistic exercise, a bad word that badass people say. Mildred (Frances McDormand), the woman on the quest for justice, asks Dixon if he is still in “the ni**r-torturing business.” Earlier, she proclaims that “it seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crimes.” Unlike Haggis, this is all off-screen noise, a way to provide texture for McDonagh’s imaginary city. We’re welcome to imagine what exactly he is talking about, aided maybe by his choice to magnanimously locate the movie in the same state that Michael Brown was executed by a police offer in point-blank range though the word “torture” maybe brings to mind the image of Eric Garner being tortured to death by police in Staten Island.
Next to Crash, this is an adroit update; instead of ornate images of racial violence and sexual assault, McDonagh details them with breezy callousness and doesn’t feel any need to show us what he means because we’ve seen the videos on the news somewhere. We can the plastically American faces that McDonagh casts onto those blurry images of roadside beatings, on the necks of the menacing khaki figures that always stand above the beaten faces of the publicly tortured. Haggis needed to create specific images because, in the words of Roger Ebert he was “telling parables.” Dixon, whose on-screen monstrosities are largely, but not entirely (he does defenestrate somebody), limited to pure description and in this slight-of-hand he can be, 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 also enjoys fucking with people but it is less clear if he is doing this out of any particular rage. In In Bruges, his first movie, an assassin (Colin Farrell) accidentally kills a random child and the movie demands we both consider this a major moral faux pas but also sympathize with the killer enough to watch him evade ostensibly just punishment. His work as a playwright, similarly, feature children killing their parents (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “The Lonesome West”), people killing children (“The Pillowman”), and further Americans being racist (“A Behanding in Spokane”). In a review of “A Behanding in Spokane,” Hilton Als accused McDonagh of using blackness as “a Broadway prop” but the same could be said of any anybody in his oeuvre.
McDonagh care less than Haggis any maybe that’s what makes the experiences irreconcilable. Admirers of Crash felt educated about something, Ebert had predicted that “anyone seeing [Crash] is likely to be moved to have a little more sympathy for people not like themselves.” and that sincerity permeated the air, a 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, a Harvard academic who had been arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after being arrested for breaking into his own house, it felt like a moment out of Crash without the burning automobile. Eight years later, much like Crash, this seems like a quaint notion.
In McDonagh’s world, the racist policeman aren’t redeemed or quite forgiven. 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. This is another joke, a signifier of McDonagh’s wittiness as a writer. Dixon’s life is given meaning again, also a joke because we learn that his information is probably wrong, and the movie ends in the media res of a cute road trip which doubles as a bonding moment with Mildred, erstwhile enemy. He isn’t redeemed morally but is saved by the miracle of being a cliché.
If Haggis had written Three Billboards, Mildred would have bonded not with the regional violent white trash police officer but with glasses-wearing Abercrombie (Clarke Peters), the black police chief who takes over the Ebbing, Missouri police force after Willoughby kills himself. This would provide a kind of narrative neatness of moral equivalence that filmgoers used to believe in, before we became so jaded, i.e. that our struggles were all equal and translatable. Instead, in the few extended seconds after Hayes burns down the police station, Abercrombie and Hayes seriously look into each other’s eyes as if McDonagh himself is seriously debating whether he cares about the country he is fictionally calling home. He shrugs and then moves on.