How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
“No pleasure but meanness.” Such is the ethos of the Misfit, the hardened criminal whose presence looms over Flannery O’Connor’s iconic short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Even before he appears in the story’s climactic final scenes, the Misfit serves as the story’s bogeyman, with the grandmother warning her family away from Florida where this escaped felon and his cronies are headed.
At the story’s outset, the nature of the Misfit’s crimes is only vaguely referenced, as the grandmother encourages her son to read “what [the paper] says he did to these people.” But we learn just how ruthless he is when he and his fellow convicts slaughter an innocent family — children and all — in cold blood.
Even worse, the Misfit seems to have convinced himself that he’s justified in his actions — he’s angry at his imprisonment, in denial over his guilt, and resentful of outside help. He has fully rejected faith in Christ’s resurrection and, in turn, has embraced the lifestyle that he says follows such a denial:
If [Jesus] did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can — by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.
It’s a typical O’Connor story that way, where violence and existential questions meet, where ideologies are tested in the laboratory of real life. Just how poorly the Misfit’s philosophy fares in this test is evidenced by his eventual acknowledgement that he finds no real pleasure in life even though he’s given full vent to his nihilistic impulses.
Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is another such story, overflowing with violence and populated by damaged and damaging characters. In its tone, dialogue, and situation, McDonagh’s cinematic world seems directly inspired by O’Connor, a connection encouraged by the appearance of her iconic short story collection as reading material for one of the characters. Other implicit references to O’Connor’s style and thematic concerns abound, and they provide a redemptive framework, both for making sense of the graceless economy that governs these characters’ lives and for imagining other, life-affirming possibilities.The film’s accurately bleak depiction of a world without grace instills a powerful longing in viewers that reality might actually be otherwise.
The story centers on a mother’s (Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand) misguided attempt to get justice for her murdered daughter by publicly shaming the town’s police chief for failing to discover the perpetrator. In her quest, Mildred rents three adjoining billboards, starkly confronting the community with the brazen red-and-black sequential message: “RAPED WHILE DYING”; “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”; “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”
It’s a heartrending scenario: an unspeakable crime never solved, a mother unable to find peace, a horrific injustice left unresolved. But rather than stir up sympathy for its characters, Three Billboards instead points to the damage done when an aggrieved person fashions her pain into license for self-indulgence.
Mildred has become so consumed by unrequited vengeance that she’s unleashed her rage on the police force and, by extension, the town. The film documents a breakdown in fellowship with others that is both responsible for and a result of Mildred’s obsession. She’s so fixated on how her daughter’s murder affected her that she’s blind to how it has also affected her son and ex-husband and, especially, to how her own untamed fury damages those around her, often brutally.
Deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is Mildred’s foil. Like her, rather than quell his inner demons, he unleashes them on innocent victims. A racist drunk emboldened by the authority of his badge, Dixon is a menace to the town. He is known to abuse his position and is alleged to have beaten a black man in his custody, a charge whose veracity is underscored by his actions in the film. Like O’Connor’s Misfit, Dixon rationalizes his behavior, finding solace in his mother’s excuses for his actions and comfort in her belief that he’s special and entitled.
Both Mildred and Dixon have overcompensated for the wrongs inflicted on them — an abusive marriage, a fatherless childhood — and have stoked resentment indiscriminately at a world that’s brought them harm. The two seem intent on testing out the Misfit’s hypothesis that a world devoid of Christ’s resurrection is lawless and, ultimately, meaningless. In this way, then, Three Billboards succeeds in effecting an apologetic-in-negative by putting on full display the poverty of such a life bereft of grace.
The audience recognizes the tragedy of this attitude. It’s honestly hard to miss, as Mildred foregoes opportunity after opportunity to relinquish her despair and to choose instead to see others, to look beyond her pain and attend to those for whom she’s responsible. She lets no slight — perceived or real — go unreturned, including those levied by children.
In the film’s most poignant — and, unexpectedly enough, hopeful — thread, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) bears the brunt of Mildred’s animosity. He does so with a dignity and mercy lacking in the other major characters, a contrast made even more vivid given that he’s facing a terminal diagnosis.
While certainly flawed, Willoughby offers a Christ-like example of turning the other cheek in the face of Mildred’s indecency. He can do so because — unlike Mildred — he finds strength and purpose in something beyond himself: his family’s love and a firm commitment to his community. Willoughby, in fact, is the only character to speak of love, and he advocates it through deed and word, leaving a letter for Dixon admonishing him to release the hate that’s driven him thus far. Given Dixon’s heinous racism, many viewers understandably decry this moment, but it does open him up to the possibility of redemption.
Furthermore, grace notes like this — relatively rare, often muddled, and undoubtedly incomplete — encourage viewers to think beyond the given and envision a world unbound by our material realities of death and decay, hostility and corruption. Even Mildred seems to long for such a world, though she only allows herself a moment to revel in the possibilities.
In one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, one that seems almost out of place, Mildred is planting flowers at the billboards. It’s a rare peaceful reprieve for both her and the audience. She sees a deer and finds it a safe sounding board, musing about what conclusions can be drawn from her daughter’s unsolved murder: “Still no arrest, how come I wonder, because there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other?” Despite Mildred’s behavior to this point and her apparent belief that life is meaningless and that she can mistreat people with impunity, she unexpectedly concludes, “I hope not.”
This “hope not” might be as far as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri can go, but its accurately bleak depiction of a world without grace instills a powerful longing in viewers that reality might actually be otherwise. That perhaps, as the Misfit acknowledges, Jesus really did throw everything off balance. His resurrection, if true, might just set us free from the calculating, destructive logic of sin. It might just give us a path to justice unencumbered by our failings.
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