The Tyranny of Certainty: The Politics of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

It is safe to say that recent politics has been overrun by epochs of political tribalism. At least in the UK, that is, where the tumults of Brexit have divided a population and sectioned our political world into some convenient boxes. Some of those are ‘brexiteer’ or ‘remainiac’, whilst others are ‘gammons’ and ‘the looney left’. Whoever, or whatever is being talked about, it is growing increasingly more simple to lump ideologies, arguments and people in categories made for condemnation. You may have seen one of my previous articles on Jordan Peterson, where I bemoan his tendency to view all left-wingers as the same. It is a pseudoscientific view and a manipulation of history; but unfortunately, this mindsight pervades all things.

That political world, where nuance has been removed and acceptance of the other deferred, has perhaps sprouted from our cultural sphere. Throughout our lives we are fed stories where the lines between good and bad are blindingly clear. Robin Hood, good; the sheriff, bad; Batman, good; The Joker, bad; Captain America, good; Thanos, bad. And whilst some of these peoples’ morals may go through periods of uncertainty, the message is clear, there are the goodies and the baddies, and barely anyone in between. Such parallels are unrealistic. The world is stock full of diversity, and world history is the conflict of a diverse set of interests. It may be easier to see it all as red vs blue, white vs black, but that just isn’t accurate.

This isn’t true for all cultures, of course, and certainly not in recent times. Coming alongside a new set of realistic and ambiguous dramas is Martin Mcdonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. At face value, and on account of its trailer, the film gives off the vibes of a story full of certainty. The protagonist, Mildred Hayes, looks tough, and unremorseful in her fight against a system that has wronged her and her daughter. This continues into the beginning of the film, and especially so with the violent and racist figure of Jason Dixon, who at first appears to be a figurehead of the police’s systemic injustices. However, as we delve deeper into the drama, things start to become more nuanced.

Mildred’s violent attack against her dentist, and her later burning down of the police station, portray her as irrational and vindictive. The police chief’s welcoming attitude to Mildred’s views and his later suicide blurs some of the claims made against him. Dixon, the crass, unbearable Dixon, ends up being a key proponent in finding a suspect for the young girl’s rape and murder. Even Abercrombie, the new black police chief who at first appears to be bringing some justice, covers up for the suspected rapist on the orders of a military superior. All the certainties that this film produced in its trailer have been wiped clean and made a mockery out of. What is certain is that this isn’t The Avengers, there is no good ending, and no morally righteous conclusion. Mildred and Dixon create a newfound alliance, and the credits roll as they drive off into the Missourian countryside, determined to find her daughter’s rapist and kill him. Just as we are starved of any certainty, we are also starved of any simple retribution. This storyline is not the typical arc, no Taken or Kill Bill. We are forced to think, to look back on the confusing events we have just witnessed, to recollect on the good and the bad.

Going into this film with an expectation for certainty, or for a single narrative, will leave you bitterly disappointed. This happens clearly in some wider criticism, notably in The Daily Beast, where the racist cop’s ‘redemptive arc’ is considered ‘altogether offensive’. Attempts are also made to sort the film into a particularly well-worn genre, and criticism made thereafter when this fails. The Washington Post often uses phrases such as: ‘it would have been much more powerful’and ‘would have been a sharper movie’; sidelining the merit of this film into its capability to tell us something morally, rather than to depict events in an entertaining way. These pieces miss the overall purpose of this film, whose events are there for our examination but not to spoon us a narrative. The New Yorker is determined to see this story as one that attacks Trump voters, or the brexiteers of the UK; but again, this ignores the picture’s domineering, and realistic, ambiguity.

We could all learn from the developments of this film when it comes to our real-life political encounters. Often enough we expect there to be a narrative behind someone’s actions; a good and a bad, the devil and the saint, but these things do not always exist. I am not, to make it clear, telling you to support racists like Dixon even if they do good deeds, but instead to understand that no one should hold anything sacred. Good people oftentimes do bad things in the pursuit of what they see as good, and traditionally bad people can do good things (often by mistake) in the pursuit of the own self interest. Expect nothing, and be rid of the narrative-obsession that comes with our own culture. Sometimes you will be wrong, sometimes that person you hold dear will do something bad, and sometimes the ideology you despise can teach you something new.

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