by Oliver Kenny, University of Lille, France
Coming hot on the heels of the growing #MeToo campaign and the Hollywood sexual harassment revelations, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh 2017) was the first star-studded Oscar vehicle featuring a rape-revenge narrative template to be judged according to the changed media standards. At a moment when Kevin Spacey was written out of a film expected to bring him an Oscar nomination, students were calling for Woody Allen to be removed from film studies curricula and Molly Ringwald was about to question the sexual politics of her own cult hits, Three Billboards would face unusual scrutiny of its storyline of rape and murder. While many critics pointed to the brilliant performances, especially by Frances McDormand as the victim’s mother, and the strength and determination of her character, little attention was paid to the images of the brutal crime: there were almost none. As a film that centres around the rape and murder of a young woman, Three Billboards is highly unusual in mainstream filmmaking in containing no imagery of the fatal episode itself. A glimpse of the corpse in the police file is the only visual reference to her death.
Images of rape form a staple of a number of mainstream and arthouse films. When rape is part of a storyline, the victims are usually attractive young women and their assault provides the trigger for revenge by a male protagonist, with the search for revenge occupying much of the story’s narrative. Crime drama Wind River (Taylor Sheridan 2017) is a prime example of this, in which the camera lingers on images of a teenager’s bloodied corpse from the start, while its climax is an extended scene of violent harassment and rape. Within such films, images of the victim’s murder or corpse often constitute a central narrative element, either as the opening of the film, as flashbacks documenting the man’s developing understanding of ‘what happened’, or as the climax when the events are visually ‘revealed’ to the film spectator. This link between the visualisation of the assault and the appropriation of female suffering into a male narrative of power and control is key. Moreover, Wind River uses the vengeful death of the assailants as proxy revenge for the unsolved rape and murder of the male protagonist’s (Jeremy Renner) own teenage daughter years before. As Dominique Russell points out, cinematic sexual violence is frequently disentangled from the complexities of rape, seduction and power and ‘subordinated to political or philosophical purposes […] reinforc[ing] the hierarchy of masculine imagination over feminine body’.  In Wind River, a woman’s assault and excruciating death becomes the backdrop to a man’s attempt to deal with grief and its psychological side-effects.
In The Scene of Violence: Cinema, Crime, Affect, law and film scholar Alison Young points out two particular ways in which filmic images of rape negate and appropriate female suffering. She argues that there is currently no language that allows us to depict rape without falling into the twin traps of giving the viewer control over the verification of the rape having taken place, whilst at the same time disavowing the spectator of any responsibility for the rape. Her key examples are: The Accused (Jonathan Kaplan 1988), in which the first visualisation of the rape is only offered to the spectator when the male witness takes the stand in court, despite the victim having already described her ordeal many times; and Blackrock (Steven Vidler 1997), when the male witness is presented as being far away from the female victim and therefore unable to help. For Young, these two films are emblematic of what happens in all filmic depictions of rape: firstly, the woman’s testimony is denied, only being validated when the witness/spectator corroborates her story, a corroboration only possible in the visualisation of the act and not through listening to the woman’s story; and secondly, despite this power of confirmation, the witness/spectator remains distant, unable to act, thus being exonerated from responsibility. The witness/spectator is powerful whilst evading any responsibility for that power. Importantly, Young argues that this refers to any image of rape, not simply to those mentioned in demonstrating her point.
Young cites Kill Bill Vol.1 (Quentin Tarantino 2003) as an example of more positive thinking about rape imagery because it refuses to show the rape, thus giving verification power to the victim herself, regardless of any forensic need to ‘prove’ it beyond this:
‘Kill Bill demonstrates, then, that the automatic inclusion of a rape scene in a rape-revenge film is unnecessary. Despite the claims made for the pedagogic benefits arising from the depiction of rape, films such as The Accused do worse than take insufficient care in their representation of the event — they perpetuate the notion that rape must be seen before it can be condemned. In this notion resides the assumption that a woman’s words, and a woman’s memories of sexual injury, cannot be trusted or taken for granted: both the spectator and the law are alike in requiring corroboration of her claim’. 
In not depicting the rape but nonetheless considering it to be of the utmost importance, a film can step outside of the problematic politics of visualising rape outlined above. I am not suggesting censorship of rape imagery but, rather, that we investigate the productive potential of the non-depiction of rape in pursuing progressive changes to societal attitudes towards rape and sexual violence.
Like in Kill Bill, there is no visualisation of rape in Three Billboards. Although the victim is dead and therefore unable to provide testimony, the facts of the case are never doubted, visual confirmation is unnecessary and it is the societal consequences of this rape that are examined rather than the facts of the rape itself. Unlike Kill Bill, there is no simple split between the goodies (The Bride) and the baddies (Bill and his team) and there is no suggestion that violent death can easily be balanced out by violent revenge. The moral take-away of Three Billboards is unclear; rather, we are asked to question the actions of all characters, the community at large and how both of these represent society outside of the fictional world of Ebbing.
The narrative of Three Billboards, follows Mildred (Frances McDormand), who is trying to reawaken interest in the rape and murder case of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) by erecting three billboards that harangue the local police chief. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is suffering from late-stage pancreatic cancer and genuinely feels he has done all he can to find the perpetrator(s), is named not for his personal failings but because he represents the institutional failings of local law enforcement. Tragically, on the night Angela is raped and murdered, Mildred refuses to lend her daughter her car and responds to a flippantly teenage rebellion with ‘I hope you get raped’. During the course of the film, Mildred firebombs the local police station, assaults schoolchildren and demonstrates great prejudice against a love-interest because of his dwarfism. Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic bigot of a cop who rails against Miranda for her efforts, ends up being the person providing the greatest clues and impetus towards capturing the killer of any character apart from Mildred. Angela spews venom against her mother and helps to drive a wedge between all members of her family. Except for the ultimately absent perpetrator(s), the main characters are not easily categorisable as good or bad, as helping or hindering the investigation, as acting justly or unjustly. Refreshingly, there is no moralistic cathartic ending; the killer remains on the loose and the protagonists do not even decide whether to enact a form of proxy-revenge on a different rapist they have found. The film ends without them making a decision.
On the one hand, Three Billboards follows the structure of the typical revenge film. It opens with the revelation of a violent event and the efforts of a loved-one to come to terms with the loss of the victim. The avenger encounters a number of obstacles, the overcoming of which justifies the increasing violence of their actions. A suitable subject for revenge is discovered and the failure of legal means to apprehend this person justifies their extra-judicial killing, despite flimsy evidence from an unreliable source (in Three Billboards, this is a conversation overheard by a drunk, morally defunct character). So far, so conventional.
On the other hand, it becomes clear very quickly that the police are not hiding the identity of a local man and have genuinely hit a dead end in the investigation. Vengeance and catharsis are therefore not the narrative focus but catalysts for a discussion about how the town responds to the rape. Why do a low-ranking cop and a dentist begin intimidating the victim’s mother and the manager of the billboards, against the express wishes of the police chief? How does the victim’s mother come to justify an almost-fatal arson attack on the police station? Why would a grieving father set fire to the billboards, which seem to be the only means of keeping his daughter’s case in the public eye and thus potentially finding her killer? What have parents been saying about the victim’s family that would encourage their school-age children to bully the victim’s brother and mother? The subject of the film, then, is not rape but the societal discussion of rape; the town’s infighting only begins when the town is forced to confront its role in the aftermath of the victim’s attack.
What Three Billboards seems to do, instead of focussing on the distressing, corporeal (often sexualised) aspects of a (beautiful, young, female) victim’s demise, is to pose the question of how society should respond to the incident. By avoiding images of the rape itself and of any revenge, the focus of the film is shifted from an emphasis on legal confirmation, punishment and individual responsibility (placed on a lone ‘bad apple’) to an emphasis on discourse, taboo and collective responsibility. This shift echoes the distinction made by philosophy scholar Roy Brand between ‘ontological witnessing’ and ‘ethical witnessing’.  In describing his concept of ethical witnessing in the context of a high-school massacre in Elephant (Gus Van Sant 2003), Brand suggests that the film’s power lies precisely in not providing a clear moral message or rationale behind two boys’ decision to massacre their schoolmates and rather in making us consider how we, as individuals and as a society, engage with mass murder. Similarly, the focus in Three Billboards is not on the rape and murder — we understand that it is wholly repugnant — but rather on the billboards: on how society responds to rape and murder, how society prioritises in its aftermath and how we deal with those who say that not enough has been done.
In contrast to ‘ontological witnessing’ — being physically present at an incident — Brand suggests that, ‘being present is not to be taken ontologically (as being there) but ethically — as being responsible or at least responsive to the event. […] Obviously we cannot change the past or determine the future, though we can still see ourselves as answering to their demands. Likewise, we cannot change what we view on screen, but we can see ourselves implicated in some important ways’.  Ethical witnessing is not a replacement for ontological witnessing, but if we follow Brand in seeing the witness’s response to the event as central to the experience of being a witness, a film can be understood as evoking ethical witnessing if it encourages us to reflect on our own complicity in, and responsibility for, the events we have witnessed. We are clearly not responsible for the immediate (fictional) act of violence but we can think about our collective responsibility for the conditions that lead to such events.
We must therefore think about Three Billboards in the context of rape imagery. Not just as a film that considers discourses around rape but one that does so without depicting the rape itself, without pursuing eye-for-an-eye revenge narratives as a crowd-pleasing solution and without pandering to a black-and-white narrative of evil-doing perpetrators, angelic victims and innocent bystanders. It is a film that entwines everyone in its narrative: the local residents, the police, the news reporters as well as us, the spectator, as we are swung back and forth between the competing ethical interests of all the characters, each of whom is worthy and flawed, invoking empathy and open to negative judgment. It is a film that can be thought of as presenting us with ethical witnessing, making us consider our responsibility for the acts of the protagonists, in however small a way, without any need to have witnessed the acts themselves, even filmically. Because, in a step that goes beyond even Elephant, there is no witnessing of the acts by anyone but the perpetrator; even the camera wasn’t involved.
- Dominique Russell. 2010. Introduction: Why Rape? In Russell, ed. Rape in Art Cinema. Continuum, 6.
- Alison Young. 2009. The Scene of Violence: Cinema, Crime, Affect. Routledge, 70.
- Roy Brand. 2009. Witnessing Trauma on Film. In Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski, ed. Media Witnessing: Testimony in the Age of Mass Communication. Palgrave Macmillan, 198-215.
- Brand, 209.
Oliver Kenny is a teaching and research fellow at the University of Lille, France. His PhD dealt with extremity, ethics and politics in ‘new extreme’ films, a recent grouping of controversial, mainly European films containing explicit sex and violence. He has written recently about the use of long takes to film sexual violence, and genre theory in the light of hardcore sex scenes in arthouse films. His current research explores questions of extremity, transgression, pornography and the ‘erotic’, especially in French academic discourse.
firstname.lastname@example.org / @oliverkenny24