Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

‘Three Billboards’ wins best religious film

Actress Frances McDormand in a scene from “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

(RNS) — I know, I know: “Best Religious Film” is not a Golden Globes category. Neither is it an Academy Awards category.

Perhaps it should be.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” got a lot of love Sunday (Jan. 7) at the Golden Globes — best motion picture, drama; best actress in a motion picture, drama (Frances McDormand); best supporting actor in a motion picture (Sam Rockwell); best screenplay — motion picture (Martin McDonagh).

I personally believe that it deserved every award that it got. I had seen the movie the night before; it was utterly entrancing. It was perhaps the best movie that I have seen in the past year.

Yes, great acting (seriously — has Frances McDormand ever made a bad movie?).  A great screenplay.

But, the story itself is one of the most religious tales that you will see on the silver screen, and for this alone, it merits your attention.

Simply put: The movie is about sin, forgiveness, and redemption.

Or, as one of my colleagues said, it was deeply Christian.

Yes — but it is also deeply Jewish.

Let me try very hard not to put any spoilers out there.

A mother (Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand) whose daughter had been raped and killed. Her quest for justice. Her relationships with the local police, and a town that seems eager to not help her.

But, then the text opens up for us.

The police chief (Bill Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson), is dying. He leaves letters around town for those who would survive him. They are beautiful, eloquent, personal messages. They speak to the heart of each person, letting that person know how the police chief would want them to live their lives.

In Jewish tradition, we would call such messages ethical wills.

  • The tradition starts with Jacob on his deathbed, at the end of Genesis, addressing each of his sons. (It is less of an ethical will as a prediction of what would happen to the tribes in the future.)
  • The tradition continues with Moses — again, addressing each of the tribes in the final moments of the Torah. (Actually, you could argue that most of the book of Deuteronomy is, in fact, Moses’ ethical will to the Jewish people.)
  • The tradition continues with King David — who, on his deathbed, instructs his son and successor, Solomon, in how he would want him to live — as well as a laundry list of the people who deserve David’s posthumous vengeance.

One of the police chief’s messages lands in the hands of the racist, homophobic, violent, still-lives-with-his-mother loser cop (Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell). Dixon is nothing short of a bastard. There seems to be no redemptive value in him.

But, Chief Willoughby’s from-beyond-the-grave ethical will cajoles Dixon into understanding a profound truth: He will never live up to his personal and professional goals until he learns to love.

That, precisely, is what Dixon learns to do.

Right. Love. That Christian thing, you are saying.

You would be right, but you would be only half right.

Because what Willoughby is telling Dixon to do — is to develop the capacity for “hesed” — which is less about love as affection, as it is about love that comes from a deep place within you, and which translates from the Hebrew into compassion, and which then translates into a kind of covenant that exists between God’s creatures.

That is the subtext — or, perhaps, the real text — of the movie.

Yes, that’s Christian. And it is also Jewish. It lies at the heart of any number of other religious traditions that I would not have the chutzpah to pretend to know.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is about unspeakable violence. It is about judgment. It is about justice. It is about forgiveness.

When it comes to the once disgusting Dixon, it is about the embodiment of two great Jewish teachings.

  • “In a place where there are no men (which I would choose to translate as “menschen,” people of moral depth), strive to be a man.” (Pirkei Avot, the ethical maxims of the ancient sages)
  • “Until the day of your death, God waits for you.” (High Holy Day liturgy)

The ultimate message of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”: Given the right circumstances and the right kind of support and encouragement, deeply wounded people can engage in what Judaism would call “tikkun ha-nefesh,” the repair of their inner lives — and transcend themselves, and become deeper, holier people.

That, it seems to me, is the ultimate religious message there is.

Go see “Three Billboards.” It’s simply that good.

(Jeffrey Salkin is the rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

24 Comments

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  • Great movie yes,but religious? Hardly. What a stretch to attribute such religious attributes to a secular movie, unless you’re referring to the scene where Mildred dresses down the Catholic priest. That was a great scene and rings so true. Anyway, I agree that the movie was “utterly entrancing”.

  • The Rabbi is doing theology: finding the religious truth in the everyday events of the world. Hence, as far as a theologian is concerned it doesn’t matter if the film is labeled secular or religious. I understand him to be saying that this film has more than the usual amount of religious truth.

  • Agreed. Those who call themselves religious who do not “find… the religious truth in the everyday events of the world” subscribe to a belief system that is irrelevant to the world and its inhabitants. “Religion” that is concerned primarily with matters above and apart from daily life on earth serves no one – not its proponents, not any deity it purports to honor, not the world at large.

  • One of the greatest examples of love that I have seen Biblically, after Christ dying for us, is Genesis. God took the time to create the world, and hold back the waters….He then created the stars in the sky…He then created lush plants for us to enjoy and dine on…..He then created every animal for us to enjoy and love and then He put man in the midst of what He had created for him. All of that was created with man and the love that God had for him, in mind. He created the earth for us.
    Now i may have gotten some of those out of order, but when you really look at creation and why God did it and the love involved, you see maybe the second greatest example of love.

  • Jeffrey, are you a liberal Rabbi who ignores Leviticus and Genesis, and Judges? Your “homophobic” comment makes me wonder if you are endorsing homosexuality and God’s word doesn’t agree with you.

  • I noticed you seem to have love for neither the mother nor the violated and murdered daughter. Why is that? Why the concerted effort to snuff out their existence, like a tax write off.

  • Except victims of Christianity get consigned to the darkness of misery. Told to be silent and submit to some twisted version of “pastoral care” from a religious leader.

  • Rabbi Salkin is a Reform rabbi and would probably be classified as liberal on social issues like LGBT rights. (All Jewish movements to the left of Orthodoxy ordain gays and lesbians, and permit same-sex marriage; the exact contours of forbidden conduct are a little more complicated, especially within the Conservative movement which still sees the Torah not just as normative and guiding but as legally authoritative on some level.).
    I haven’t seen the movie, and don’t want to spoil it for myself, but I would imagine that the homophobic nature of the character is something a lot more violent than simply opposing same-sex marriage. I would think Christians oppose violence toward gays and lesbians as well.

  • thanks Arb. I just wonder how one can ignore Genesis, Leviticus and Judges, plus the further condemnation of the act throughout the Old Testament. Israel was punished for engaging in the immorality (I have read somewhere), were they were discussing Gibeah or is there another instance. (edited)

  • To keep things in perspective :

    The Apostles’/Agnostics’ Creed 2018 CE:
    (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of
    the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascensionstories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen

    (references
    used are available upon request)

  • Sandi, I think I will choose to interpret your comments in the world possible way, ignore the content of what you actually said, misdirect my observations, and assume all sorts of things about you that are probably not true (but I will write them down and share them with the whole world anyway). O wait, that would be wrong, so I won’t. Have a blessed day.

  • “The tradition starts with Jacob on his deathbed, at the end of Genesis, addressing each of his sons. (It is less of an ethical will as a prediction of what would happen to the tribes in the future.)”

    Messianic Exegesis by Donald Juel quotes Genesis Rabbah on 49.8. Points to Messiah related to Fourth Day of Creation Week coming in 4th Millennium from Creation. King Jesus, Son of David, on Cross 30 AD

    “Royal Messiah will be descended from the tribe of Judah…Judah was the fourth of the tribal ancestors to be born, just as the daleth is the fourth letter of the alphabet and is the fourth letter of his name. On the fourth day the luminaries were created, while of the Messiah it is written, “And his throne [shall endure] as the sun before me” (Ps 89.37)…and so it says, “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah” (Gen. 49.10);”

  • Help me understand what characterizes “religious” truth as it relates to the film?
    An ethical story – yes, a morality play – definitely. A religious film – please don’t appropriate ethics and morality and recharacterize them as “religious”.

  • It doesn’t have to be labeled as secular or religious, but it certainly is a stretch to attribute any “religious truth” to this film. Have you seen the movie?

  • I agree. Religions often try to appropriate morality as if it needs to be delivered supernaturally. Having seen the movie, it seems like a real stretch.

  • Christians, even the most devout, ignore Leviticus every day by eating pork and other clearly forbidden foods. People ignore what suits them.

  • Acts 10:9
    9 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour[b] to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

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