Disclaimer: Contains spoilers for the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
As a child, I shared a room with my sister, Abby. Being six years younger than I, she sometimes worried about the things she was exposed to as a result of having older siblings.
After we had been tucked in by our parents, I would often hear a small voice ask, “Is Batman real?”
“No.” I would say, “Go to sleep.”
“Are bad guys real?” she would ask next. This was the source of the anxiety.
Perhaps earlier that day she had watched Batman Beyond with my brother and me, and although she knew that The Joker didn’t exist, she also knew there were real robbers and real kidnappers. She understood that there were bad people, and she looked to me to convince her that we were safe.
Sometimes I went into detail, explaining that we live in a safe community, with people we love. We have police officers and firefighters and Mom and Dad to protect us. Sometimes I even went as far as to describe guardian angels, hovering invisibly over us.
I may have stretched the truth. But I wanted to assure her that no bad guy could ever touch us, that we were tucked in our twin beds like royals, our comforters (which Abby always called “comfortables”) impenetrable by any evil force. I was ten and trying to make sense of the world.
I am almost twenty-eight, and I’m still trying to make sense of the world. I know more now, which only makes it more difficult. I’m also trying to make sense of how other people make sense of the world.
A few weeks ago, I saw the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missourri. It was an engaging story, with narrative twists I wasn’t expecting and character choices that left me watching through my fingers.
A week later, I listened to a recent episode of the NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour. After listening to Stephen, Glen, and Linda rave about Ladybird, I was surprised at their criticism and anger over Three Billboards.
At first, what bothered me most was the fact that their conversation critiqued the movie for trying and failing to achieve nuance, when the film was clearly meant to be a piece of Southern Gothic. If the characters were archetypal, it was because they were intended to be so. The movie literally opens with a character reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” They feed it to you. It’s one thing to criticize Southern Gothic for mixing dark humor and racial tension and the ways in which this may not “work” in our current political climate, but at least identify it for what it is and recognize the genre.
Anyway, the most interesting part of both the NPR podcast and the film itself was the “undeserved redemption arc” given to a villainous character. You don’t have to Google far to find plenty of reviews that call out the film for being “too forgiving” of its violent, abusive and prejudiced characters, in particular the openly racist cop played by Sam Rockwell.
First, the term “redemption arc” is a stretch for this character’s narrative. This character loses his job and although you are lead to believe he is going to prove himself by catching the unseen criminal and true villain of the film, he fails to do so. However, he is given ample screen time, a backstory and sympathetic background music. You can see that he comes from brokenness and poverty and is uneducated. Of course, this is no excuse for his violence and racism. Still, are we not supposed to want to understand why people become the way they do? Doesn’t understanding how the “bad guy” became bad make the story more interesting?
In this season of sexual misconduct allegations, I am baffled as I listen to TV reporters and NPR correspondents struggle to reconcile their love for someone with the terrible things that person did. We all love people who have done horrible things. I agree that racial and sexual violence are among the worst things you can do to another human being. Of course the perpetrators of these crimes should face severe consequences. These choices should break trust and end careers. Forgiveness does not mean freedom from consequences.
Though it’s an unpopular opinion to have right now, I think we should be cautious about deciding that someone is suddenly a “bad person.” Who do we become when we start doing this? And how do we categorize ourselves?
Flannery O’Connor wrote Southern Gothic stories to confuse our ideas of villains and victims, to explore the darkest parts of human nature. She also wrote about forgiveness and redemption. “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful,” she said in a letter.
She was referring to the instances when we see the brokenness in ourselves and don’t want to do the work to change it—when we can’t admit that we are capable of terrible things. But it’s also resisting grace to see yourself as the “good guy” and to sort everyone else into boxes of our own creation. Grace means exploring the complex narratives that makes us human, as undeserved as they may be.