Interview With Dr. Dominic Callahan
“Vengeance As a Path of Transformation in
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO“
The Center for Jungian Studies of South Florida (CJSSF) presents a Cinema Feature of: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO” with CJSSF Friend Of The Board Dr. Dominic Callahan as the presenter. This cinema feature will take place on Sunday, November 24th at Savor Cinema (Cinema Paradiso) in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. More Info, Registration, and Directions
Dominic Callahan, Ph.D., is a Past-President of the Center for Jungian Studies of South Florida and a psychologist in private practice in Coral Springs, Florida. He has given numerous presentations for the Center on subjects including the trauma of 9/11, presidential politics, pornography, addiction, and film. He is best known for his cinematic workshops, his most recent on A Beautiful Mistake: Possession and Consciousness in Captain Fantastic, and Life of Pi: Faith, Reason, and the Tiger in Between.
INTERVIEWER: Teresa Oster MSW, MS, CJSSF board member
CJSSF: What is it about the medium of film that makes it so rich for Jungian interpretation?
DR. CALLAHAN: I think
CJSSF: Three Billboards is a quirky and darkly comedic crime story. What about it first struck you as interesting for a Jung Center event?
DR. CALLAHAN: The first quality I look for in a film to present is its ability to move me in a way I can trust. What I mean by this is for my emotions to be in service to something deeper than sentimentality or gratuitous provocation. This is a film in which you feel the presence of nuance and where complicated reality is honored. Three Billboards, just as you suggest, is both quirky and darkly comedic. Do not these adjectives for a crime story immediately locate us in the territory of depth psychology? Is truth not better approached sideways and with a vigilant eye for the constant juxtaposition of the heroic and the absurd? This film achieves its power, in part, from offering us characters that are riddled with contradictions and who are living lives which bring the incongruence between who they are and what they do into a painful and almost tender view. The darkness in this film, established in the beginning by learning of the rape, murder, and burning of Mildred Hayes’s 16-year-old daughter, Angela, is made bearable for the viewer by watching and feeling characters who careen off one another by the force of their grief, guilt, anger
CJSSF: Is an arc of psychological transformation in
DR. CALLAHAN: As viewers, we are always more satisfied when witnessing the main characters of a good film undergo a consequential inner journey that results in an enlarged life. In the nigredo phase, the black night of the soul, if
In this film,
CJSSF: Fire is a recurrent motif in Three Billboards. Would you comment on fire as an alchemical transformative process in the film? Jung saw alchemy as a metaphor for individuation. How might Three Billboards illustrate this application of alchemy?
DR. CALLAHAN: Jung once wrote that “…..emotion is the alchemical fire whose warmth brings everything into existence and whose heat burns all superfluities into ash”. In Jungian thought, each of us is a potential alchemist whose life is an opus wanting us to redeem its psychic contents into a new form, utilizing that which occurs on the outside to preside over an inner process of freeing the spirit imprisoned in matter and bring together previous opposites into a new coniunctio, a new understanding that transforms our lives.
In this film, fire is an essential agent in the transformative process we observe in both Mildred and Dixon. It appears three times: the first is in the charred body of Mildred’s daughter, the second when the billboards Mildred commissions are burned down and the third when Mildred firebombs the police station, severely burning Dixon in the process.
Mildred is a woman possessed by unexpressed grief, crippling guilt, and righteous anger. Her only daughter, aged 16, was raped, murdered and her body was burned. There were neither witnesses nor DNA that matched any men in existing data banks. The killer or killers could not be found and justice, for now, will not be served. This is her moment of calcinatio, the fire which destroys all prior structures of faith, burned to the ground by the consuming fire of unbelievable loss. She faces a world impotent in its options and mute in its anger. She cannot hold the rage that builds within her and becomes an avenging angel, an Erinyes, the goddess of vengeance who punishes men for crimes against the natural order. Identifying with the archetype of vengeance rather than dialoguing with its summons, she is possessed, a figure of terrifying power that cannot be reached yet must be stopped, her crusade not belonging in the human realm in which, at last, she must still find a way to remain.
I am again indebted to Dr. Overman for reminding me that Edward Edinger, the esteemed Jungian Analyst, in his book The Anatomy of the Psyche, speaks of how the process of calcinatio can lead either to terrestrial or ethereal fire, depending on the ability of the ego to tolerate and hold the immensely powerful effect that has been activated. Mildred shows us what it means to be identified with the archetype of Vengeance or Divine wrath and the destruction this will cause. At the same time, her behavior when
Her essential companion in this movement into consciousness is Dixon, his face severely burned by her actions, fired by the police department and his mind inflamed by the words Chief Willoughby wrote before committing suicide. Their alchemical journeys seem to require each other and they travel together at the end of the film as two people compelled by something larger than themselves. Newly informed by remorse, she tells him it was she who set the police station ablaze and he responds “Well, who the Hell else would it be”. She laughs softly. A new synthesis has been achieved. Alchemy is at work. She asks Dixon if he is sure about what they are doing in their decision to visit a man they knew had raped a girl even though he was not the one who had murdered her daughter. He answers, “Not really. You?” “Not really,” she responds, adding, “I guess we can decide along the way”. They look at one another, no longer needing to know what is coming next. A new capacity for holding the opposites has been achieved, vengeance giving way to a connection between two individuals who once despised one another. Each carries the white ash of a calcinatio that has claimed them for a larger life.
Join us on November 24th
The Center for Jungian Studies of South Florida is a Not-For-Profit organization that serves the wider community by presenting lectures, workshops, and discussions to address psychological, social and spiritual issues and provide a forum for personal reflection and growth inspired by C.G. Jung's Analytical Psychology.