Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: suicide as altruistic love


Photo: Merrick Morton / AP

I went to see Martin McDonagh’s latest in the best cinema in Dublin (The Lighthouse) with some good company who are also good critics.

This isn’t a review – there are far better reviewers than me out there who can be read with a couple of clicks. It is a reflection on one particular scene in what is a pitch-black look at life, death and hate in small town Missouri.

McDonagh’s dialogue is brilliant, profane, darkly funny and utterly depressing all at once. Someone I was with said she’s seen the film a few days before and the audience in Belfast laughed throughout. There was hardly a peep in Dublin … the tragedy trumped any comedy it seems. Now what to make of that inversion of caricatures of dour sober-sided northerners and fun-loving southerners?!

I digress. Here’s why this post.

Woody Harrelson’s Police Chief Willoughby has pancreatic cancer and has months to live. Much is made of how he is practically the only main character who is not in some way consumed by hate and bitterness. His nemesis is Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, a scorching performance as a mother engulfed with grief and driven by rage at her daughter’s killer, the police, her violent ex-husband and very possibly herself.

Compared to her, Willoughby is a saint. He’s done his best on her daughter’s case but has no leads. He’s an older husband to his picture-perfect young wife Anne (at least 20 years his junior, over the top on the schmaltz here) and a doting dad to two lovely young daughters. There is time given to an idyllic family picnic; of the girls left to play a fun game set up by their dad beside a lake while their parents sneak off to make love (one last time as it turns out).

Willoughby (as we later learn) shows remarkable grace to, and belief in, Sam Rockwell’s vicious racist, homophobic and stupid policeman by writing him a letter (they must still do that in Ebbing Missouri) telling him (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that he is at heart a good man who needs to learn to love rather than hate. He also makes peace with Mildred despite her hounding of him in the in final weeks of his life (the three billboards of the film’s title ask why Willoughby has made no arrests for the murder and rape of her daughter). He writes her a letter too, hoping she catches the killer and regretting that he was not able to. He even pays for her three Billboards for another month.

I mention all of this because it sets Willoughby up in maximum sympathetic terms. Which all goes to make the scene which follows all the more horrible. After writing a third and final letter – this time to his wife after their day at the lake – he goes out to the stables, puts a black bag over his head, and shoots himself in the head. A message for Anne is written on the bag – something like don’t look, and call the boys at the station.

The letter to Anne is voiced by Harrelson. In it he explains why he has killed himself. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but he won’t have her watching him waste away and die a slow death. He wants to spare her that. He acknowledges she may hate him but he hopes only for a while. In time, he hopes she will come to see it was the best thing. The tone is tender and loving.

I gotta say I detested this scene. It made me feel sick. It was not only manipulative and fake, but the whole narrative arc was set to make Willoughby’s suicide a heroic act of love, wanting to spare his wife and children suffering. The note on the bag was obscene – as if it was one last act of kindness. Yet she still finds a bloodied corpse of her husband with his brains on the stable floor – an executioners bag over his head hardly makes a difference to the brutality of the act.

In Ireland, rates of suicide, especially in young men, are shocking. The impact is devastating. Somehow it is seen as ‘a way out’ of a hopeless future. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri plays right into that destructive narrative by dressing up suicide as a brave act of altruistic love.

Yes I know it is a film. Yes, it is ‘just’ telling a story and it is not necessarily ‘endorsing’ or promoting suicide. Yes, it shows the subsequent agony of Anne who asks ‘What are you supposed to do the day after your husband shoots himself?’ Yes, it advances the plot, because it raises the question in the public mind of whether Mildred’s billboards drove him to take his own life.

But, for me, McDonagh’s script glorifies suicide. The context portrays Willoughby as beyond reproach. He is not mentally disturbed or depressed. He calmly and almost naturally takes his own life, as if it was an obvious next step. The reading of the three letters after his death all portray him as noble.

Yet his supposed act of kindness was one of the most aggressive and violent scenes in a very aggressive and violent movie. Anne is left not only not knowing what to do for one day, but for the rest of her life as the widow of husband who blew his brains out. His children are left with the trauma of a daddy who killed himself. His suicide robbed them all of the time to love him, care for him and be with him when he died. To say goodbye and grieve with dignity. It left them victims of a violent crime. It was far from a loving, kind, considerate act.

I have known someone die from pancreatic cancer. It was awful but that person died with joy, faith and love, surrounded by family and friends. The Christian funeral was suffused with hope and thanksgiving for a life well lived. Pancreatic cancer, and the death it caused, did not, and does not, have the last word. There was no need either to play God by taking life, or grimly clinging on to life at all costs.

I hope, that when I die, I can do so with a little bit of that person’s faith in the God of life.

In other words, to be able to trust that dying is not the worst thing in the world.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

13 thoughts on “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: suicide as altruistic love

  1. Thanks Patrick for your insight and that dimension of the film – I enjoy it when you get passionate/angry about something. Your piece reminded me of the book “With the end in mind” by Kathryn Mannix, a Palliative Medicine Consultant – the subtitle “Dying Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial” tells you all that it’s about. A review from you would be a wonderful antidote to the Chief Willoughby. The book is full of stories about people dying but focuses on how they died and why that matters so much. It is a wise and grace-filled book which I am sure would have given Chief Willoughby second thoughts. I’d go halves with you on sending a copy to Martin McDonagh.

    • It’s not death that is difficult, it’s dying. I saw the movie and did not walk away thinking that suicide was gloried in any respect. To the contrary.
      The Nicene Creed was changed some years back. Now it reads “He suffered death and was buried”. Formerly it read “ He suffered, died and was buried.”
      The change is a mistake I believe. Of the many courageous acts of Christ was carrying on in the midst of death and forgiving his tormentors as he suffered unimaginable pain. Death was a relief. Courage is not distributed in equal measures.
      The pain of suicidal thoughts doesn’t come across as generating sympathy in movies. Pray for those who have those thoughts…their pain is no less real than those who suffer from cancer.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree. You’ve articulated precisely my feelings as I watched this film. It’s a fantastic picture, painful and beautiful at the same time, and reflects the messiness of human reality. But this one point concerned me, as I’m afraid folks will also praise the nobility of this suicide, when it was anything but.

  3. I agree with you. This movie made me feel sick!! I am a suicide surviver and I felt like this movie cheapened suicide and even mocked it. So digusting and offensive to suicide survivers.

    • Welcome Starlillee. My reaction came from knowing people impacted by suicide. I hadn’t thought of suicide survivors, so thank you for your comment and courage in making it.

  4. I found the scene very peaceful, it gives control back to a man who had no control. Quick and confident, no hesitation.

  5. As a cancer survivor, one thing I didn’t recognize until a few months in to treatment was that my loved ones were going through something too just as I was. I didn’t recognize it until I called my best friend upset that in that time he never talked to me about it, and when confronted he broke down and said, “What do I say about it? My best friend is dying and there’s nothing I can do to fix it” that really struck a chord with me. Woody Harrelsons suicide to me didn’t “glorify” suicide. It showed the grief of those left behind and didn’t play to the false narrative that suicide is a selfish act. No one chose to be born, people have a right to decide that if they feel their time here is too much to bare to end it without being made to feel guilty on the way out. It’s more selfish to manipulate through guilt someone into continued suffering just to keep you happy. Going through what I have I would never fault someone for ending their suffering.

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