As someone who’s been watching Martin McDonagh films ever since they were little-known cult movies, it strikes me as downright surreal to see a McDonagh film swept up under the wildly unnecessary but seemingly mandatory backlash of awards season. One of the main targets of the film’s most vocal critics is the character of Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell. At the beginning of the movie, we see Dixon as a dumb, violent, racist. As the movie progresses, we get the sense that he goes through some sort of “redemption arc”, as he gets inspired to take responsibility for himself and, seemingly, become a better man.
This plot point has drawn a lot of ire from some viewers. To them, understandably so, racism and police brutality are institutional, and can’t be solved within the confines of a standard feature-length runtime. However, I would argue that Dixon’s story is much more subversive than as presented initially. So, to take a look at how Dixon supposedly changes for the better, we should look at the scene where he’s at his worst.
Dixon’s final day as a cop
Upon learning about his mentor’s death, Jason Dixon’s grief soon turns to anger. To Dixon, the only reason why Sheriff Willoughby died was because of Mildred’s billboards. So, as a method of finding an outlet for his anger, he storms into the advertising office, smashes up the place, and beats the crap out of the man who sold Mildred those billboards. “See, Red? I got problems with white folks too,” he snarls, showing a complete lack of self-awareness. He stumbles back into the police station, unwittingly walking past Willoughby’s replacement, Abercrombie, an African American man.
This scene is a good showcase of how Dixon reacts to trauma. Dixon is a man with an inherently violent nature, and his job as a police officer allows him to enact that violence in horrible ways. Not only that but Willoughby, a man who’s supposed to be his mentor, is basically letting him off the hook. Because nobody in a position of power is willing to confront him, Dixon lets his worst tendencies run amok. Therefore, because Dixon relates so many of his impulses to Willoughby’s mentorship, it makes sense that he would react in such a violent way once Willoughby has died.
Once Abercrombie has been put into charge, it’s important to note that, suddenly, none of Dixon’s actions are excused. In fact, he’s literally fired the day of. What’s interesting about the scene where Dixon gets fired is his reaction. I half expected him to fly off the handle, especially considering that the character is a racist. However, he just slumps over and accepts his fate. My interpretation of this scene is that, when Dixon realizes that his support system is no longer there, he will now have to be held accountable for his actions.
Later on, when he’s in the police office, Dixon reads a letter sent to him from Willoughby. In it, he reads that the sheriff his potential of becoming a great detective, if only he learned to live his life with more patience and love. It is this letter that really sets Dixon on the road to redemption, although there are a couple dark aspects to it. For one, Dixon didn’t appear to have any desire to change his ways once Abercrombie called him out on his behavior. This is partially because he just met the man, but a racial component surely played into it.
However, the glaring issue with this letter is its content. Specifically: why didn’t Willoughby ever tell Dixon these things in person? I think it’s mainly because of guilt. If Willoughby ever told Dixon that he needs to act kinder, that would be ignoring all the times he’s let him off for his horrible behavior. Now that Willoughby’s dead, he doesn’t have to face his hypocrisy. This affects Dixon in more ways than is evident. He’s never actually been called out on specific behaviors by Willoughby. He’s only ever been given helpful advice from this letter. And this letter, while containing a good message, is a little vague. What exactly constitutes patience, kindness, and love in the eyes of a man full of anger and hatred?
Dixon becoming a better person
We get our answer when we reach near the end of the film. Up to this point, Dixon seems to be trying to be a better man. He apologizes to Red for beating him and actively tries to help out Mildred, even if doing so gave him severe burns and horrible injuries. Even Abercrombie commends Dixon for his work, although it’s important to note that he’s still fired. This is a sticking point as some people say that Dixon is too easily forgiven of his racism. However, looking at the whole last third of the film, none of Dixon’s racist actions are ever forgiven. In fact, it seems for like everyone is willing to look past Dixon’s old behavior because he’s now on their side. Through the eyes of a man consumed by violence, patience and love just sound like being violent on the right side.
That’s why the ending is so important. At this point, Dixon and Mildred join forces to murder a man that Dixon strongly suspects is a rapist. Not Angela’s rapist, just someone that he overheard that he thinks is a rapist. Jumping to this conclusion and driving across state lines isn’t the act of a patient man. Instead, it’s the act of a man who’s simply redirected his violence towards a less sympathetic target. It’s clear that Dixon ends his character arc as a better person that he was at the beginning of the film, but McDonagh takes pains to show how change is rocky and difficult, and that we can only alter our true nature so much.