I am asked this question by my non-Missouri friends, in mixed tones of apprehension and excitement, as if unsure whether they’d like to road-trip there, just to see, or to make sure they never get within fifty miles of the place.
The newest contribution to the cultural portrait of Missouri is getting a lot of attention these days, an ironic turn given the fact that it was filmed in the mountains of North Carolina and that it makes little reference to the actual state of Missouri (the word “Missouri” is spoken a few times, but that’s about it). So the “Missouri” of the title is hardly referential, and no, friends, there is no Ebbing.
But the question of whether “Ebbing, Missouri” makes sense in a metaphorical way is something else entirely, and should leave Missourians with some soul-searching to do. A recent column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called attention to the ways in which the real state of Missouri is coming to resemble the town of Ebbing, where racism and violence are commonplace, police routinely brutalize citizens without consequence, and most people seem mired in the kind of attitudes we are familiar with from Cool Hand Luke. The columnist writes wryly, “Tourism commissions throughout the state are serving sides of Pepto-Bismol at their monthly luncheon meetings.”
On the other side of the state, the Kansas City Star is excited by a trend it calls “Ozarks Noir,” citing Three Billboards as the latest in a series that began with Winter’s Bone, progressed through Gone Girl, and most recently manifested itself in the Netflix series Ozark, about which I have already commented. The Star points to thriller novels by Daniel Woodrell, Robert Dunn, and many others as signs of something that looks practically like a movement, although a succession of books about meth-addled killers ain’t exactly the Harlem Renaissance. Dunn is quoted in the article of the appeal of the Ozarks: “Part of it is nostalgia for what is gone. Part of it is atmospheric, a place that is dark and brooding.”
I’ll admit to my share of dark and brooding times, and a recent article in the Springfield News-Leader about the “epidemic of despair” in the Ozarks is enough to make anyone feel a bit on edge. But the Ozarks, and Missouri, are not alone in that predicament. Anywhere education is lower, and poverty is higher, than average is experiencing that epidemic as the have-nots grow increasingly distant from the haves; it’s the great challenge of our time. Ultimately, though, I don’t think Three Billboards is about Missouri, or the South (the film’s writer/director said in an interview that the idea for the story came to him while he was traveling in the Alabama-Georgia-Florida region), or social problems in general. If you’re looking for a movie that represents Missouri, or for that matter even tries to represent Missouri, this isn’t it. The odd notes in the language and the setting signal to natives that the film isn’t “about” Missouri in the way that, say, A River Runs Through It is about Montana.
Much of the argument around Three Billboards focuses on the story arc, in which sympathetic characters act horribly, bad characters act horribly, and nobody seems to get the kind of fate they deserve. Crimes go unpunished. People say awful things. The moral universe seems askew. Critics of the film see a failure of the movie’s moral compass in these unaddressed imbalances, an implied acceptance or endorsement of the characters’ ill behavior; defenders see it as simply reflecting the mess and disorder of life itself. I’ll leave it to you to decide where to come down, but will at least give the movie credit for being more complicated and troubling than most of the movies that get the designation of “quality film” or “important social issue film” these days. (On a side note, I would add that the movie’s unrelenting insistence on having virtually all the significant characters use hard-core profanity, presumably to make them sound “tough” or “contemporary,” is tin-eared, tiresome, and untrue to the actual rhythms of rural speech.)
“Ebbing” is not in Missouri. Perhaps it’s everywhere.