Wind of the Wings of Madness; or, On Three Billboards and Greek Tragedy

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri struck me as great in the way of Greek tragedy, complete with tragedy’s alter-ego, comedy. All the characters want something utterly understandable and completely impossible. The horrible things they do to try to get what they want are completely traceable in a direct line from that passionate wanting and the doubtless also deeply passionate knowing the impossibility. It is humanity at its most complexly and awfully human: ridiculous/sublime, fear-ridden/love-addled.

Yes, the characters’ actions are extreme, their own logic is stretched to the shredding point. But none of it is entirely beyond the bounds of what we know is possible, given human history, given, even, if we’re honest, from some aspects of our own personal histories. Is there not some time you acted out of deep passion to do something stunningly stupid? Yes, maybe it was not horrid, not criminal, but was it not a kind of insanity that came out of a deeply felt moment? Did you not act, even a little, out of a madness?

I watched these characters, most of whom I could feel at least a moment of empathy with, and felt the horror when I wondered if I wasn’t watching madness, madness with a very normal face, a plottable trajectory from sane. There is a ruthless vision at work in this movie, and I admired writer/director Martin McDonagh’s willingness to create layered characters who are neither entirely likable nor entirely detestable, and events that tumble outward in chaos that seems controlled by vengeful gods. Like a Greek tragedy, events unfold that are large and looming as a train bearing down and you’re stuck on the tracks: the situation seems improbable, but the outcome terrible and inevitable.

There is tenderness in the movie, sometimes inadvertent. There is grace, often unexpected. Is there redemption? What confounds me about humanity is our capacity for redemption, and our resistance to it. I’ll let you decide for yourself.

But as a writer, I challenge myself to write as unblinkingly of what we are capable of, to be as ruthless in my gaze, and as empathic.