Ethics Review: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

I watched last year’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” twice, just to make sure it was the profound ethics movie I thought it was. It is. None of the reviews described it that way, of course. Here is the New York Times:

“The movie opens on low boil with Mildred behind the wheel of her station wagon near three derelict billboards…she uses the billboards to announce her crusade … a way to get things jumping (the investigators, the tale) and splash some foreboding on an outwardly pacific scene. Much of the story involves the ripples of outrage, confusion and buffoonery that the billboards inspire and that soon envelop almost everyone Mildred knows. Months after her daughter’s death, grief has walled her in; isolating and seemingly impenetrable, it is inscribed in the hardness of her gaze and in her grim new identity as a mother of a dead girl. The billboards turn that grief into a weapon, a means of taking on the law and assorted men — a threatening stranger, a vigilante dentist and an abusive ex (John Hawkes) — who collectively suggest another wall that has closed Mildred in….”

None of which addresses what is remarkable about the film, which is that it shows what causes our ethics alarms not to ring—Frances McDormand as Mildred and Sam Rockwell as Dixon, a racist and vicious deputy, in particular demonstrate  what it is like to be driven by non-ethical considerations of the darkest and most passionate sort—and more important, what causes them to start ringing again. Most reviewers described this as a dark and depressing film. The ethics alarms are mostly off again as the film ends, and that is ominous, but its main ethics message is uplifting in many ways. “Three Billboards” teaches us that even broken, ignorant, alienated human beings have the capacity to access their innate instincts for compassion, justice, forgiveness, selflessness and kindness, and even when our ethical selves seem permanently overcome and decisively defeated, they can burst out again, in control, salvaging what’s best about the species.

There is a moment early in “Three Billboards” that signals that it is not only going to show us what monsters anger and grief can transform us into, but also that what George Washington’s list of 110 Rules called “that little spark of celestial fire called conscience” is remarkably resilient.  A sheriff—the ethics compass of the story, played by Woody Harrelson— visits Mildred after her billboard messages embarrass him and roil the town. She is hard and cold as marble as he tries to explain his failure to find her daughter’s rapist/killer, even after he reminds her that he is dying of cancer. Suddenly the sheriff has a violent  spasm: he coughs up blood on himself and Mildred. And we see her fury evaporate in an instant. The compassionate and caring mother she once was emerges, if only for a few moments. ( McDormand is such a superb actress that she pulls off the sudden transition convincingly and movingly: you believe it, though it is like watching Mr. Hyde turn into Dr. Jekyll in the snap of a finger.) Later, when again her fury has been aroused, we see the same woman firebomb the police station and watch implacably as her nemesis deputy burns. A warning: just because the ethics alarms can ring doesn’t mean they are working well enough.

Sam Rockwell’s character also reveals surprisingly that his ethics spark has not been entirely extinguished, again thanks to a catalyst supplied by the sheriff. This transformation caused considerable  criticism of the film among critics and artists in Hollywood, and some attribute the film’s failure to win the Best Picture Oscar to the fact that a racist is redeemed and revealed to have an ethical core. But except for the sociopaths and psychopaths among us, admittedly a disturbingly large group, we all have that ethical core. We have the ethics alarms too, ready to be re-activated, even if they aren’t in perfect working order. Yes, this is  even true of racists. So much of our current political discourse is driven by the false construct that a single belief or a single lapse of reason marks an individual as irredeemable. Its easier to marginalize and demonize them that way. But it isn’t true.

Indeed Ethics Alarms often declares certain conduct and words as signature significance, proving that an individual is unethical because such actions and thoughts are alien to ethical human beings. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” reminded me that people may be unethical–Mildred and Dixon, the deputy, could never be called ethical, for ethical people don’t set police stations on fire or throw young men out of second story windows, as Dixon does—but that even unethical individuals can find their ethics if you give them a chance.

And if they can find their ethics, so can all of us, and so can society. There is hope.


Addendum: I cannot leave “Three Billboards” without a salute to one of its most powerful scenes, when Mildred tells a priest why she doesn’t care what he has to say when he comes to her home to admonish her for the messages on the billboards:


19 thoughts on “Ethics Review: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

  1. First, the movie — if you pay attention — is about how individuals can really have epiphanal experiences which change their lives, their thoughts, their outlook. Grim to watch, but worth every second. The epiphanies come late, but they do come. And that — in addition to courage — is what the movie is about. (Not worth repeating that movie critics are all IQ 80s: just don’t get it, or even try to…)

    And re the good father: I cheered at this scene. After “Spotlight” and the Boston pedophilia scandal of the 80s — Cardinal Law was promoted to the Vatican rather than booted out of the church — and the long list of archdioceses where pedophilia scandals have been documented across the world — I was thrilled to see someone else pick this up: Respect for the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church? Comfort and advice from same? Watch it: this is NOT your “linear constant through chaos,” by a long shot. A totally corrupt institution, and if you’re a part of it you’re putting your kids in danger too.

  2. The Ken Follett novel ‘The Pillars of the Earth’, a very good read in itself, features repentance, forgiveness and redemption very prominently. Sadly, the TV series based on the book completely strips these aspects out, reducing the series to a depressing hollow shell of Follett’s masterpiece.

    • Elaborate. No gay characters in the movie, were there? The slurs? That’s not homophobia, that’s just being a jerk. I had many things go through my mind as I was watching this succession of flawed, desperate people, but homophobia wasn’t among them.

      • Well…how many of these pedo priests have gone after young girls? Not all homosexuals are pedophiles, yet it seems a disproportionate number of pedophiles pick on children of their own gender. But it’s considered “homophobic” to point that out, just like it’s considered “Islamophobic” to point out that a lot of terrorists happen to be Muslim, or “racist” to point out that a lot African-Americans commit crimes,

        Now, if there are stats that contradict this perception, that there are at least as many male pedos that go after young girls (now that I think of it, I’ve never heard of female pedos going after young girls) by all means show me. If the stats DO fit the perception, I know gay-rights advocates won’t like the implications, but I don’t think they should ignore them or try to cover them up.

        • ” how many of these pedo priests have gone after young girls?”

          Something over 50% of them.
          More boys get raped, because the serial rapists have more opportunity. But over 60% of the pedo priests prayed (sic) on girls. According to Vatican figures. They just have less access to them.

          Sorry, you did ask.

          Other figures vary. The Boston ones show 25% preyed partly or exclusively on female victims.

          • Thanks, I was looking for the stats. The boy-raping just seems marginally worse, given the official church position on homosexuality, but not much worse. it just adds an extra layer of hypocrisy, and there are layers of that enough.

            • Yes, I thought her line clearly referred to the church’s stance on, in her words, “boy-fucking,” not necessarily her own judgment on homosexuality. And even if it had been, that wouldn’t make the movie homophobic. That struck me as a pretty unhelpful comment.

  3. Jack, this is brilliant! One of your best.

    I knew in my bones this was a powerful movie, but you are right, no one has yet expressed just why. You’ve done a brilliant job I thought that, and I thank you.

    By the way, this topic and treatment reminds me very much of another movie I have always thought suffered from under-explication: The Apostle with Robert Duvall. I always thought it was profoundly about forgiveness and reconciliation.

    • Thanks, Charles. Those of us who deal in this field risk the “if your only tool is a hammer” problem. We are conditioned to see ethics issues in everything. That’s why I watched the film twice in two days—to be sure I wasn’t projecting. Films are tough, because so many distractions can frame one’s experience. I read critics who allowed the writing, the past films of the director, the performances, the violence, the black humor, the superficial similarity to Tarantino (who doesn’t care about ethics at all) to distract them from seeing the ethics message. But I decided that I had never seen this particular ethics point made so vividly. “The Apostle” is terrific: keep those ethics movie titles coming. One of these days, I’ll get a full list up.

  4. I don’t know any priests, but the one in the movie seems a bit of a straw man. And the PURPOSE of the Catholic Church, to the best of my knowledge, is not to engage in criminal activity, which makes the author-avatar lecture in that scene a completely stupid analogy.

    There’s an obvious reason why joining a criminal street gang might be, by itself, an unethical decision making one culpable, whereas joining, say, a knitting club or a bowling league doesn’t necessarily implicate me if some of the members turn out to be secret Russian spies or something.

    • That avoids the “gang” point, however. That uninvolved priest had constructive knowledge: the rot in the Church on the pedophile front was too large and well-known—hell I knew about it working at a Jesuit University…and every single Church official didn’t? And since the leadership of the Church was dedicated to covering up the crimes of and enabling child molesters, I would argue that engaging in criminal activity WAS on of its purposes, just not the only one.

  5. [We are trying out a new coffee blend. ‘Cafe Quindio’. Tell me your impressions!]

    The sexual corruption in the Roman Catholic Church arises alongside the sexual corruption which was unleashed, as it were, in a rather specific period of time. This can be traced easily in literature and in film (and then of course later in TV). The correction and reversal of the corruption runs parallel.

    Not sure what limit to set but perhaps from 1930-1970. The desire to throw off sexual restraints, which in the West have been part of a paideia of Occidental culture and definitely one moral pillar of Christianity (sexual purity, the directing of human energy to the higher centers, avoiding fornication and directly energy to lower centers), can be traced back to 1880-1920 in writers like DH Lawrence and a philosopher like Nietzsche. The movement, as it were, that began then began with the intellectuals and, slowly and surely, their influence became manifest. Let us say that in about 100 years of such ‘advocacy’ one of the foundations of Western moral ethics has been substantially undermined if not toppled, and all the effects of this surround us and are openly visible. I could mention the entire *list* and delve into that but that has already been rehearsed so many times: an acidic destruction of the family, the encouragment of homosexuality and all manner of different deviant expressions of sexuality, the marketing of sexual delight and perversion, the permeation of the culture with vulgarity and brutality, and then — quite obviously — a worldwide unleashing of sexual appetite through the pornographic industry.

    When looked at from a certain angle, and yet it is an angle that requires some philosophical training to even grasp (but those dumbed down by general brutality become alarmingly un-subtle), the main agents and features which are said to be destroying the foundation of Western civilization and more locally dissolving the foundation on which American civilization sits, are similar in kind, or the root of dissolution is a similar one. I have said such things before and will repeat it again: it is *your* generation that has instigated, led and brought us into the more open period of obvious perversion and destructiveness. And *you* have no idea 1) what has happened 2) why it has happened and 3) what is to be done about it.

    You will leave this world, I suppose, and all that your immense irresponsibilites have set in motion, with a ‘Hugh Hefner’ smile on your perverted lips. But you will leave the whole ruptured society, the tangle of civilization, to be dealt with by others. All because you could not control yourselves sexually.

    You are the directing class of your culture, the professionals, the ‘intellectuals’, and yet *you*, like the culture at large, have been seduced. But you have no way to either appreciate or understand what that means. You have no mental tool nor stance from which to make an assessment. More or less such a discriminating perceptual platform has been undermined in *you*. You now participate in the orgy. The orgy subsumes you. You serve it.

    In order to begin — just to begin mind you! — a process of rectification and response to the sickness that you have allowed to become prevalent and in which you participate (etiehr openly or in secret), what is required is an intellectual assessment. But more than that it requires metaphysical understanding of the nature of the human being, and that human being located within his or her ‘world’ and ‘reality’. I observe that very very few of *you* have this. And you do not want to! Like tittering children, irresponsible but head-strong, you have allowed your appetites to get the better of you and allowed this to become a rampant phenomenon. But you lack understanding of an inner dynamic, and one that can only be gained through a strict and hard philosophical analysis.

    The main issue is concupiscence which is a Thomistic (and Aristotle-derived) term dealing on appetite and desire. It is a lofty idea that, though not hard to grasp, definitely flies over *your* heads. You show no evidence of understanding what ‘seduction’ entails and what its ramifications are in yourselves, in your culture, in our civilization. Again, irresponsibly you have left ‘intellectus’ behind for all the shining and shimmering (and grossly dripping) ‘delights’ which have seduced you down to your very core. Libido domanandi refers to lust for dominion and lust for legislative and executive power’ and is perhaps a specific manifestation of social perversion. But what underscores it is appetite that has gone off the tracks. And in our culture — in case it is not completely obvious! — it is sexual appetite that is cultivated and channeled away from ‘proper intellectual channels’ where higher thought and realization occurs, into brutal forms which are given immense power through film-presentations: direct implanting into the imagination of man.

    None of this do *you* understand, and none of this do you ever talk about. You watch the most superficial flickerings as they appear, and pass, on the screen, and you understand none of what is really happening there, nor why. An entire System has been created to ‘capture’ your attention and your imagination, and it simultaneously vibrates … and you simultaneously drip with pleasure and then look up with a shameless smile. I have painted an ‘image’ here of seduction, a symbol.

    Now, it has now to be brought out that simultaneous to the general seduction of culture, through all the channels so easy to identify, that along with that seduction process the foundational religions have been attacks, ridiculed, villified, undermined and toppled. This has been openly evident as the so-called ‘cultural Marxists’ have ‘marched through the institutions’, and though it might be important to trace ‘undermining influence’ and link it to Marxist praxis, there is no advantage in dealing on that here, now.

    When the concupiscent appetite is evoked and stimulated, when desire and sexual longing are evoked and encouraged, the entire organism is affected. If man is a congeries of different centers (appetite, intellect, imagination, passion, discriminating mind, et cetera) it is not hard to see that, energetically, an inner orientation shifts. Sexuality has become, in essence, a political tool for gaining dominion. The ‘method’, this ‘praxis’, is so much at the core of the American System that one has to deliberately step back from it to see it clearly. But it is *this* that is the essential problem, it is this that knocks a person off their ethical and moral foundation, and it is this that is the mother of a whole array of different results that lead to the dominion of chaos in the ‘body of man’ but also in the ‘social and political body’. In one way or another.

    One of the things I notice in what I am now describing as our Maoist social and political environment is how easily and quickly *you* become coopted into certain kinds of activism. It is the phenomenon of the ‘SJW’but it is really deeper than that. The implications are enormous. When a given individual has been, to a greater or lesser degree, removed from a solid foundation is sanely metaphysical, and seduced on so many different levels that are almost impossible to catalogue, that individual loses their self-directing capacity and they easily become pawns of powerful directive forces that steer them along. Because the seduction has penetrated them, it has undermined ‘intellectus’ and therefor they lose a capacity to see and appreciate higher dimension in all things. That is what barbarous brutality is and what it does! But it is only in that higer dimension that real human life, and ethical and moral life, lives and resides.

    It has been interesting to read and consider the ideological position of Charlotte Iserbyt and to gain another angle to view the undermining and destruction of Occidental and European culture through the deliberate efforts of specific individuals. They, operating with certain anthropological ideas, have chosen to see children and people as malleable objects they are to mold according to some limited vision and understanding, at best, and in the worst case as they seek to reduce man to a poweless victim of external force. That is, after all, the essence of what we face in this present.

    Bit by bit, day by day, spending time here among such wonderful *teachers* I am gaining a much better understanding of the conditions of our present, the root causes, and the potential cure. Instead of ‘turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream’ I recommend (in classical pretention!) a reverse-movement, a counter-movement.

    Turn the intellectus back on or at least discover what *it * is. Become active and alarmed, vigilant and activist in resistance to the ‘trends of the present’. Make a deliberate effort to identify the ‘stream’ that carries you (and where it carries you) and try to serve the renovation of Europe in even some small way.

    The foundation of the Greco-Christian traditons, religion and philosophy, are amazing, valuable and pure. If you are solely a man longing to penetrate some other man’s butt-end I suppose this will go over your head! But really, and truthfully, it is these concerns and issues that are foundational to Occidental culture. If they fully collapse, all will indeed be lost. I hope that at least some of ‘my fellow Americans’ will choose the higer dimensions of things over a their own dripping croches …. 😉

  6. Sam Rockwell’s character also reveals surprisingly that his ethics spark has not been entirely extinguished, again thanks to a catalyst supplied by the sheriff. This transformation caused considerable criticism of the film among critics and artists in Hollywood, and some attribute the film’s failure to win the Best Picture Oscar to the fact that a racist is redeemed and revealed to have an ethical core. But except for the sociopaths and psychopaths among us, admittedly a disturbingly large group, we all have that ethical core. We have the ethics alarms too, ready to be re-activated, even if they aren’t in perfect working order. Yes, this is even true of racists. So much of our current political discourse is driven by the false construct that a single belief or a single lapse of reason marks an individual as irredeemable. Its easier to marginalize and demonize them that way. But it isn’t true.

    I just ordered 3 of this director’s films: In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and Three Billboards. (I have a rosary with a Bruges ‘Church of Our Lady’ medallion).

    When one is attempting ‘psychological analysis’ of culture — a tempting endeavor! — it is hard to say who is and what is ‘pathological’ and sociopathological’. Certainly the question, if it is posed as a question, is interesting. Because it delves into questions about ‘the soul’ (if one understands psychology in any but a purely material-biological sense).

    This paragraph I have selected and quoted, I notice, is active and ideological and not at all neutral. The implication is that a ‘racist’ requires spiritual transformation and redemption. A simple and a common trope, really, evident gloriously in Mississippi Burning (and it is not surprising that Frances McDormand played a role in that film too). It is an ‘idea’ that runs through all parts of our culture now. It is part of an ‘engineering’ of people and communities at the hands of cultural commisars.

    I question this entire structure, and doing so I am not sure how to consider the ethical implications. I am part of a movement, Christian in orientation, which is taking an ideological stand, and a philosophical stand, against the perversions of American hyper-liberalism, and thus we have to deconstruct and disassemble these ‘liberal’ intrusions. So, what is ‘ethical’ and what is ‘non-ethical’ in respect to these large issues is not decided. Take for example the following (from ‘Faith and Heritage’ dotcom)

    We affirm that all men, of every race, ethnicity, and tribe, are created in the image of God. However, this common humanity does not mean that all groups are equal in every respect, just as two brothers can share a common family but be blessed by Providence with vastly differing talents and abilities. We affirm that many of these differences have genetic components and thank God for the diversity of mankind.

    We affirm that all men are fallen and in need of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. We further affirm that this grace, not race or ethnicity, is the sole source of our salvation.

    We affirm the multi-national multi-racial makeup of Christ’s Church. We further affirm that the nations and races are themselves individual expressions of Providence, separated and cultivated by God to check the spread of evil and add to His glory, to be preserved kind after kind in this world and eternally in the world to come. We affirm that all attempts to amalgamate humans into one mixed mass are in open rebellion against God’s law and His sovereignly created boundaries.

    We affirm that every race and ethnicity not only has the right, but also the duty to defend its homeland, borders, culture, and existence from those seeking to destroy them. We affirm that each generation has the duty to preserve its own particular culture, blood, and soil as well as the true faith of Christianity as an inheritance to those generations following it.

    We affirm that the deep and healthy Traditional Western Christian culture is far superior to the shallow, decadent, perverted, and sick culture that now saturates the Western world. We affirm the Traditional over the Modern, the Eternal over the Materialistic, and the Local over the Global. We affirm traditional gender roles, the complementarian model of marriage, and the family as the primary building block of society. We reject feminism and its legacy of divorce, illegitimacy and poverty. We stand against homosexuality, all other forms of sexual deviancy and the egalitarian ideology that enables them.

    We are Christians who have not bowed the knee to the modern Babel, who refuse to apologize for our European heritage and commit collective cultural and ethnic suicide to appease the never-ending covetous demands of the West’s enemies and our corrupt treasonous leaders.

    You see, we ‘go to battle’ against the constructs of certain liberal forms. We take them apart and we examine them, and we discover behind them not sound ethics and moral positions, but evidence of non-ethical social engineering. And then we develop an ideological response to these ‘declarations’ which are assumed to be just and good. We are not supported in these efforts and more often we are attacked. Curious really…

    This leads to a different level of criticism and analysis of the ‘productions of our present’ such as films which have been, beyond any doubt, the means for very powerful efforts at social engineering and social manipulation.

    My ‘ethical core’ is one that I define for myself as a result of my own ethical and moral probing of myself, of my surrpoundings, my culture, and all in relation to ‘the world of ideas’. If anything I resist pseudo-ethical manipulations which occur within a general scheme and system (the culture at large) which seeks to topple my own ethical foundation. Again (and thanks to Zoltar for the reference) Charlotte Iserbyt’s analysis of present machinations in education and hence in culture are germain here.

    And what ‘redemption’ even means if of course up for conversation. Still, I will stick with my own definitions and not rely on culture-machinations and culture-manipulation to define that to me.

  7. Puzzling as usual Alizia but thanks anyway. I gather I am in the group marked “*you*”; and that *we* are somehow pawns of a conspiracy to corrupt and degrade the traditional Greek / Christian culture you refer to as the Occident (?). Your ‘movement’ sounds essentially reactionary, seeking a return to ‘traditional values’, respect for authority etc. You add into this (hopefully not just to enrage *us*) sundry references that seem at first sight to support or at least tolerate racism, sexism, fascism and anti semitism. You position yourself in Old Testament hairy prophet style shouting up at the city walls “Turn from your wicked ways and live”.

    But at least for me, you hold what looks like an intriguingly inconsistent stance.

    I think I share your high regard for at least some of what we gain from ancient Greece, Rome, Christianity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. There are of course some very good and some very bad bits.

    The good bits cluster around the development of rational enquiry and free thought at the individual level: most obviously recognised in individuals seeking dialogue with God without needing the intermediation of the traditional Church establishment. This was profoundly revolutionary and challenging to traditional authority.

    The worthwhile streams of philosophy for me, supported liberating dialogues about Man’s relationships with God, Man’s relationships with Man, and the transforming enquiries into Science that powered up the Industrial Revolution.

    All of this was massively disruptive, and there were plenty of reactionaries (similar to you?) seeking a return to ‘traditional ways’ and calling for respect for ‘traditional authorities’. At some times, and in some respects, they were right: some dreadful things happened. But overall the progressives won more than they lost. If they hadn’t we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    If you truly are an enthusiast for the Occident (in the broadest sense) then you must be a supporter of a never ceasing questioning of everything around us. You can be (as you seem to be) profoundly disruptive. Surely you cannot at the same time claim to support ‘tradition’ or ‘traditional authority’?

    To my mind the road to Woodstock (1969), free love, ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ went first through the Enlightenment. I am of that young generation who believed, amongst other things, that we could build a better world. Yes, with the great benefit of hindsight, we were naive about many things. But certainly in my part of the Occident, life is profoundly better.

    I read you Alizia as in the long tradition of free thinking provocative rebels. That you can freely say what you do, is for me a wonderful confirmation that we have indeed escaped ‘tradition’ and much of the ‘traditional authority’ that my generation struggled against.

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