The power of forgiveness in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There are many cinematic tales of revenge and retribution, but few of them end in satisfaction after the deed has been done. Fewer still end in that truly powerful virtue, which we’re all capable of – forgiveness. With Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh has created not only one of his very best films (it comes so close to being on par with In Bruges, but just a few inches short), but something with a marvellous message at its core: to forgive, if you can.

Love is the most powerful emotion in the world and it comes in many forms. Touching portrayals of romantic love can make your heart soar, watching great acts of kindness can give you that warm and fuzzy feeling inside, but nothing truly tilts your perspective on life like witnessing a truly genuine act of forgiveness for a wicked deed.

All of your logic and natural spite screams that the person in question shouldn’t be forgiven – that they should suffer for the harm they caused. When you see a character offer up kindness and open their arms instead, your first reaction is shock, then follows marvel and you begin to truly admire the individual who can open their heart to an enemy so freely.

Grab Martin McDonagh’s very best film.

It’s why a lot of religions hold forgiveness at their core of their ideology (it’s the only good thing that can be said for religion, in my view). They use it because it’s a very human trait that verges on the inhuman – meaning its inherent in our nature, but it’s also so far from our reach. It’s something so difficult that it seems like only God-like figures can do it, but really, the capacity for it resides in all of us.

Only read on if you’ve seen the film – spoilers lay ahead.

Could you forgive the man who threw you out of a window?

Dixon marches across the street and brutality beats Red, throwing him out of a window.

Sam Rockwell plays Dixon – a very angry, racist cop who stands firmly against Mildred and her billboards. It’s mentioned that he tortured black people as a police officer and got away with it (Willoughby confirms it, by saying there wasn’t “enough” evidence).

Dixon has the biggest transformation arc out of all the characters in this film. For much of it, he’s entirely horrid – a loathsome man who thinks his badge gives him the freedom to beat and intimidate people. He and Mildred come to verbal blows a few times too, with Dixon always firmly siding with Willoughby, whom he dearly admires.

After Willoughby kills himself (because of terminal cancer), Dixon loses it. In his grief and pain, he decides to take action against the nearest person associated to Mildred that he can hurt – Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones); a homosexual man who sold Mildred the advertising space for the billboards.

Dixon marches across the street, beats Red brutality and hurls him out of the window, clearly not caring if he lives or dies. He then hits Pamela (Kerry Condon) in the face, marches downstairs and attacks Red even more. It’s a savage attack that’s luckily witnessed by his precinct’s new police captain. Dixon is sacked immediately, and is left stranded at home with the mother he’s so angry about having to take care of.

After Dixon is burned (by Mildred, which I’ll come to), he ends up in the same hospital ward as Red. Dixon is bandaged up to the eyes though, so Red doesn’t recognise him at first. Red immediately shows kindness to a man he views as a stranger – offering him orange juice. Dixon then does the right thing and owns up immediately – telling Red who he is and that he’s sorry for throwing him out of a window.

Naturally, Red recoils and tells him “I don’t care.” Then, slowly, and to his endless credit, he comes around – he walks over to his orange juice, pours a glance and places it next to Dixon. Then he turns the straw to face him. It’s a beautiful moment and it sets Dixon firmly on his path to reformation.

Could you forgive the woman who nearly burned you alive?

Dixon and Mildred squaring off with one another.

Mildred commits a couple of really horrible acts in her quest to enact justice. One is drilling a small hole into a dentist (to be fair – he was about to cause her pain). Another is setting fire to the police station with molotov cocktails. To be fair to her again, she phones the station first, to make sure that no one’s residing within, but Dixon is prone to wearing earphones and listening to music, so he misses her call.

This leaves him trapped inside a burning police station, with all of the exits aflame. In a sudden and surprising act of goodness, he grabs Angela’s file, to make sure it isn’t lost in the fire. He tucks it into his trousers and braves an exit. He ends up in the street, with severe burns.

Midred stands over him, horrified at what she’s done, as Peter Dinklage’s character James puts the flames on Dixon out. This is what sends him to hospital, where he has that moment with Red. He then overhears a conversation that makes him think he’s found Angela’s killer.

He cleverly scratches the suspect, to secure some DNA evidence, and he delivers it to the police. Unfortunately, the man turns out not to be Angela’s killer, but Dixon and Mildred decide to hunt him down and kill him anyway, since Dixon is certain that he’s “a rapist.”

On the road trip, Mildred confesses to Dixon that she’s the one who set the police station alight. Instead of being surprised and getting angry, instead he says: “I know – who the hell else was it going to be?” It’s a great moment and it highlights the really important fact that he’s forgiven her for it (otherwise he wouldn’t be in the car).

This could be viewed as him passing on Red’s good deed – Red forgave Dixon and here Dixon forgives Mildred. The next logical question, then, is whether Mildred will pass on that kindness.

Could you forgive the man who raped and killed your daughter?

Mildred getting the news that the man they suspected isn’t Angela’s killer.

Forgiveness should only be offered if the guilty party is truly sorry for their crime and if the victim (or victim’s family) is willing to offer it. And some crimes are so heinous that they’re hard to even think about forgiving. This is one of those.

The man who killed and raped (while dying) Angela never turns himself in and never contacts Mildred. Instead, he remains out there somewhere, unpunished for his evil crime, and – as Mildred points out – probably harming some other girl.

Mildred’s mission in life is to avenge her daughter – not only to find the guilty party, but to murder him. She wants this so badly that, towards the film’s close, she and Dixon settle on driving to Idaho to kill “a rapist” (the man who came into her shop and who Dixon overheard bragging out a rape involving gasoline), as the next best thing to killing “the rapist” who killed her daughter.

Killing anyone – as John Hawkes’ character Charlie points out – won’t bring Angela back, but Mildred is bent on enacting some kind of justice upon the wicked. And who can blame her – I like the think I’d do exactly the same thing. Forgiveness is a wonderful ideal, but it can only come when the time is right, and if you’re a strong enough individual to offer it.

McDonagh’s film promotes forgiveness as a powerful and beautiful thing, and the right path to take, but his characters only arrive at it if and when they’re ready to. Perspectives and ways of thinking can’t be forced into shifting – it has to come naturally, just like Dixon’s very believable turnaround.

And if those stars align, you might just be blown away by the grace and power of someone pouring an orange juice, looking the person who wronged them in the eye and turning a straw in their direction. And that kindness might just have a knock-on affect – putting someone with a wavering moral compass back on the right path.

There’s a hint of this happening – in the car, on the way to Idaho, Dixon and Mildred say they’re going to “decide along the way” whether they’ll choose to kill this man, as neither of them are certain about it. The film ends there, so we’ll never know what they chose. I like the think they chose to turn back. Although this man definitely deserves death, I’d prefer to think that Mildred grew into a forgiving party herself.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is in cinemas now.

Image credits: Blueprint Pictures


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