‘Three Billboards’ Movie Interweaves Judaism, Catholicism, and Southern Gothic Fiction
Martin McDonagh’s movies have some common themes. First, they are filled with powerful displays of verbal jousting, the characters using the English language like skilled fencers. Second, is the focus on the rich tapestry of eccentricities within small communities, creating an almost surreal landscape. Third, is the Judeo-Christian notion of guilt and redemption. McDonagh’s most recent work, a movie critics are raving over called Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has all of these themes and swept the Golden Globe Awards.
The Three Billboards film concerns sin, redemption, and forgiveness. The main character is seeking redemption for her actions that contributed to her daughter’s murder. This parallels the path for Catholics towards redemption for original sin. Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, the mother who breaks down after hearing her daughter was raped and then killed. It does not help that the police were indifferent.
Woody Harrelson plays Bill Willoughby, a dying police chief. He puts out letters for those who will survive him. The letters are hard-hitting ones and inform the recipient of how he or she would live their lives. What he is doing is known in the Jewish tradition as “ethical wills”. This is where a dying individual tells their loved ones what they believe should and will happen in the future. This directly connects to the ideas of redemption and faith. The belief in your thoughts influencing the future for your family and using “ethical wills” to help reach closure on issues that may be left unresolved at the time of death.
While religious themes have been incorporated into Martin McDonagh’s movies, how does the backdrop of the rural South play an important factor? The movie’s exploration of violence on a deeply personal level is a direct influence from the Southern Gothic style of fiction which was most famously attributed to William Faulkner.
Writers like Faulkner had to ask in the post-Civil War period, with large amounts of the South devasted and the violence of war and slavery seemingly written into the cultural DNA of what it means to be associated with the South how to rethink and come to terms with what it means to be a southerner. Given the connection between religion and the south, the themes of guilt and redemption play a role in Southern Gothic writing and the parts of the movies. Frances McDormand’s character is has a strong hostility to the clergy, arguing that organized religion has a systematic hypocrisy built into both the justification and subsequent forgiveness of violence.
While most attention for the movie has focused on it sweeping the Golden Globes, the movie deserves a rewatch or a first viewing while closely examining for those themes intertwined in a masterful black comedy with jarring scenes of beautifully acted drama.