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Three Billboards and the Moral Rot of Chief Willoughby

I watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri the other night, finally, and then (as is my way) devoured as many reviews as possible and man, my take on Chief Willoughby is different.

Before I hit spoiler territory — yeah, this was a flawed movie. Vox has a backgrounder which is mostly pretty good. I agree that Dixon is not redeemed at the end of the movie, but McDonagh’s black characters are in fact just plot devices. It’s a painful flaw. That said, onward.

No, wait. Let’s go back to that Vox article.

The purest vision of grace in the film is Willoughby, and even he has his flaws (especially a proclivity to overlook or laugh off the wrongdoing of some of his officers). But he’s an imperfect man who loves his family and doesn’t seem to hold grudges, and most anything that’s good in the film comes from either him or his influence. He, a man who’s ultimately very mortal, is the grace giver, not God. Three Billboards’ view of the world is essentially humanist, without the presence of the divine.

The movie I saw was, in part, about how Willoughby’s moral failings and his unwillingness to confront evil allowed his entire town to fall into evil. Also about grief. But so much is centered around Willoughby!

Really early on, he makes excuses for Dixon, who tortured black men. Eight pages into the screenplay, Willoughby says Dixon is “a good man, at heart,” and notes that there’s no real evidence to support the idea that Dixon tortured a prisoner. But it’s pretty obvious he knows the truth.

He doesn’t pursue the case at the heart of the movie, because… he’s lazy. He wants to believe that this case just can’t be pursued; you have to wait to get lucky. “Five years down the line some guy hears some other guy bragging about it in a bar-room or a jail-cell and the whole thing is wrapped up thru sheer stupidity.” Worse, that comforting lie he tells himself and others directly results in Dixon and Mildred heading off to Idaho to maybe kill a man. They believe Willoughby’s narrative, and they do stupid things because of it.

He’s vindictive. After he takes his own life, he tells Mildred this: “And although they had absolutely nothing to do with my dying, I’m sure that everyone in town will assume that they did, which is why, for Willoughby’s counter-move, I decided to pay the next month’s rent on ‘em. I thought it’d be funny, you having to defend ‘em a whole nuther month after they’ve stuck me in the ground. The joke is on you, Mildred, ha ha, and I hope they do not kill you.”

It’s funny! But it’s not, because people hate Mildred, and they really might kill her. It’s a dark, nasty thing to say from beyond the grave.

Ah, and the suicide. He frames it as a moral act. This is a Catholic movie, influenced by Flannery O’Connor. Suicide is a mortal sin. But Willoughby tells his wife it’s “a case, in some senses, of bravery.” He wants to think he’s doing the brave thing — but that’s not true even if you aren’t Catholic. Willoughby can’t bear to face the next three months of dying, much as he couldn’t bear to face the fact that Dixon was a racist who perverted the cause of justice. So he kills himself.

Willoughby is a bad cop who lets his department grow corrupt. (Zeljko Ivanek’s desk sergeant is no prize either.) While I don’t think Mildred’s descent into anger is intended to be positive, it’s nonetheless justified, and it’s Willoughby’s fault. He leaves Ebbing worse than when he found it.

Grief kills.

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