The film ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing’, Missouri, inspired protests all over the world, it was reported recently.
Billboards have appeared as far afield as Kosovo, in protest at police handling of domestic violence, and in Malta in the case of the unsolved killing of a journalist who was investigating corruption.
The “three billboards” meme was also used to dramatic effect to protest the Grenfell tower fire: “71 dead, And still no arrests? How come?” Yvette Williams, from the Justice4Grenfell campaign, said: “This was the catalyst for the three billboards outside Grenfell. The film’s message of a mother’s quest for justice and the powerful message of ‘the more you keep a case in the public eye, the better chance you have of getting it solved’ resonated with what was happening in North Kensington.”
Now the phenomenon has come to my native Hackney – three billboards have appeared outside a local church which ask the public to contribute to the fight against the growing homelessness problem in the borough: “6167 homeless in Hackney”, “Shelter & foodbank hosted here”, “Be informed. Get informed. Donate.”
‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ met with a great deal of critical success. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian praised it for its “shocking spasms of ultraviolence and rage”. Will Gompertz, on the BBC, called it a finely tuned “very black comedy.”
An inspiration for protest against genuine injustice. Well received at the box office and at industry awards ceremonies. What’s not to like?
But it’s strange that Yvette Williams of Justice4Grenfell appeals to “the film’s message of a mother’s quest for justice”, given that ‘Three Billboards’ tells us, emphatically, that protest can’t change the world for the better.
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Evil is traditionally configured as a sense of consuming nothingness that only yearns to destroy. Take Milton’s Satan for example. “All good to me becomes / Bane … Nor hope to be myself less miserable / By what I seek, but others to make such / As I.”
Or Graham Greene’s terrifying Pinkie in ‘Brighton Rock’: “This was hell then; it wasn’t anything to worry about: it was just his own familiar room.” He expresses his sense of personal hell in murder, rape and violence: “Was there no escape – anywhere – for anyone? It was worth murdering a world.”
Pasolini’s “Accattone” is Italy’s “Brighton Rock” in cinematic form. Called by one contemporary critic “the grimmest movie” he’d ever seen, it dramatises gang violence, the world of small-time pimping and vice and the plight of women caught up in criminality. Its protagonist Accattone is evil – he is not just brutal and manipulative, but goes further, self-consciously corrupting any innocence he finds. He says: “Either the world kills me, or I kill it.”
The common thread in both those examples is that evil is viewed as an ever-present terror that is intertwined with the familiar furniture of the everyday. That vision situates evil as something that people do to each other of their own free will. We can therefore be held responsible for it.
Quirky post-modernist critics tend to sidestep the question of evil altogether, situating it outside individual moral accountability. Zombie films, popular since the turn of Millennium (‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘28 Days Later’, ‘World War Z’), portray evil as a perversity of reanimated flesh. Zombies bear all the hallmarks of traditional accounts of evil – they refuse to die, and they literally inhabit an emptiness halfway between life and death.
But they aren’t human. They have no control over their own actions. They do not have moral responsibility. How can a zombie ‘do otherwise’ than kill and rage and murder? Evil is transformed into an absurd overloading of gore, of gnawed flesh and ultra-violence.
‘Three Billboards’ sidesteps evil too. There is true evil in that film – but it just doesn’t appear on screen. The rape and murder of a teenage girl emerges only as an absence. The physical existence of billboards does loom over the film’s action, and it is Mildred’s desire for ownership of the event – as real evil, as a terrible injustice – that prompts her to make things happen. But that noble expression of grief is obscured, and eventually obliterated, by the spiralling series of consequences that it sets off, until evil is almost completely absent from the film’s vision.
Lots of bad things happen in the film – but they occur in an absurd atmosphere of happenstance, emphasised by a cruelly characterised dwarf character. There is no sense that characters have a developed sense of moral responsibility; rather, they react randomly to the unfolding events. The racist cop becomes nicer (spoiler) only after his face gets burnt half off – not because he really wants to change.
The opening scene plays the billboards (‘Raped while dying’, ‘And still no arrests?’, ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’) for laughs. The policeman drives backwards to the ‘reveal’ billboard: ‘Raped while dying’. The rest of the film is driven by violence, and lots of it. Bloodied hands, bashed up faces, burning flesh mount up, until we are forced to accept that, as Mildred Hayes herself, played by Frances McDormand, says: “There ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty, and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other.”
The mother’s quest for justice is an ultimately futile posture – the final scene shows Mildred in a car going towards someone’s house, who didn’t murder her daughter at all, and whom she may, or may not attempt to murder. Nothing gets solved.
Evil remains beyond our ken, beyond the everyday. All we are left with is an insane fantasy of violence – dreamlike, carnivalesque, unreal.
Postmodern protest is meme-ready, immediately shareable online and has an enormous potential reach. But if postmodern culture affects to confront shocking themes, like violence or the body in pain, it simultaneously strips us of the right tools to fight evil. If injustice is inexplicable, only violence is eternal, and there is no good or evil, just people doing things to each other, then there can be no utility in revolt.
‘Three billboards’ was a hit precisely because it refused to engage with big moral themes in a sensitive way and precisely because it embodied the nihilism of our present cultural moment. This should make us question whether the meme-ready protests that it inspires can really change the world.