Media Matters: Comedic tragedies should avoid the token inclusion of social issues


Adrian Chu

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri walks the line between traditional film genres against the backdrop of social issues relevant in today's society. The implications of the portrayal of social issues in film should be considered in the context of a movie's themes and narrative.

by Adrian Chu, Columnist

Martin McDonagh’s black comedy, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” is about revenge, but in its 1 hour and 55 minutes runtime, the movie also covers no less than rape, racism in the criminal justice system, the futility of changing offensive vocabulary, homophobia, divorce, police brutality, sexual abuse in Catholic churches, suicide, domestic abuse, depression, sexual abuse overseas by the US military, vigilante justice and abuse of power.

Relevant social commentary and activism have become more prevalent in movies or at least their marketing campaigns, but the facile inclusion of social issues is incompatible with the comedic tragedy genre.

The movie does, by no means, take itself too seriously, juxtaposing laugh out loud moments with nauseating sadness, often in the same scene. Its central message, that “Anger just begets greater Anger,” is thought of by a character who finds the proverb on a bookmark in a book that she believes is about polio, which is really about polo. Not surprisingly, the same character’s baffling stupidity serves as comic relief.

Nearly all movies involve conflict which puts its characters in dilemmas which most people would not want to be in. However, the comedic tragedy rarely resolves the conflict which exists at the beginning of the film. Though characters usually attempt to resolve their problems head on, these attempts usually end in failure or even more suffering. In the end, most characters can only come to accept their situations and find hope and humor in their plights.

In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” characters engage in a self-destructive cycle of vengeful violence ending in a moment of hesitation to continue the cycle. In other words, inaction is the best solution for the movie’s character, a dangerous message if applied to real world social problems.

Ultimately, the movie does not address most of the real world problems it brings up. The policeman played by Sam Rockwell who embodies the problems with the America’s criminal justice system achieves redemption through means entirely unrelated to the violence and racism so obviously ingrained in him at the beginning of the film. Other social issues are simply mentioned in passing with no follow-up anywhere else in the movie.

The appeal of a comedic tragedy should come from the catharsis derived from characters finding positivity in bleak scenarios, a feeling not reliant on an audience member relating to the exact scenarios of a movie’s characters or the social issues of the film’s world but rather, to the character’s emotions.