Interview With
Dr. Dominic Callahan

Vengeance As a Path of Transformation in
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO“


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 film offers so much for a Jungian approach because it depends primarily upon images and metaphors to engage the viewer. Jung stated that “archetypal content expresses itself first and foremost in metaphors” and James Hillman believes metaphor to be the language of the soul. In films which matter, visual images awaken psychic images, able to summon the neglected areas of individual or collective life, the shadow, and utilize them so as to create a palpable sense of truth and depth. Film is the collective dreaming itself into form, an unconscious and morally urgent attempt to address the one-sidedness of wherever it is trapped by false binaries and the agonies they perpetuate. Glen Slater wrote that “films reflect the soul’s hunger for depth. Films that reveal what societies neglect strike deeper chords, which reinforce the medium’s dreamlike vision and ritual significance. With these films, we are not just engaging the gods but allowing them to transport us into their realm.” This expresses so well how the experience of watching certain films is, indeed, a transport into a liminal realm in which the human eye is given a brief respite from the literal, enjoined by the camera’s eye to become an imaginal partner, to become a soulful eye able to see and feel psyche in all things. We are far more than viewers. We, are in effect, co-creators with the director of a visual experience in which our imagination, always seeking to be addressed by the world, utilizes the film as the prima materia for our own alchemical process, seeking the philosopher’s stone of a deeper understanding of whatever human dilemmas were depicted. Such moments in the cinema can be profound. When the lights come back on, they return us to life a little less judgmental, a little less afraid, a little more capable of compassion for others and ourselves.


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 and culpability. By remaining unsolved, Angela’s murder torments the psyche of this community and calls forth the extent of the madness inherent in every small town in which a dwarf, a racist deputy, a hypocritical priest, a fat dentist, a woman with a lazy eye, a mother turned into an avenging angel, and a beloved sheriff dying of cancer comprise just part of the glorious parade of lives that exist both as outer persons while also honoring the inner palette brought to view through active imagination. Ebbing, Missouri becomes a temenos, a sacred container in which timeless motifs are re-imagined and told with an unforgettable blend of grim detail, tragic resolutions, hilarious outcomes, and moral imagination.


CJSSF: Is an arc of psychological transformation in a main character necessary for a film to be fertile ground for a Jungian discussion? Who has a transformation in Three Billboards

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 shadow is honestly brokered, it is believed to lead to spiritual renewal. When we see this done well, as in this movie, we are held by the archetypal resonance between such a character and the potential for the transformation we carry within ourselves. However, and I am indebted to Jungian Analyst Dr. Rick Overman for this observation, the opposite is also true. When a character is obdurate in refusing transformation, repeatedly turning away from the Self’s invitation to reexamine their lives, they are also a figure of some interest for a Jungian audience. Think of how Vincent (John Travolta) in Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, rejects the signs which Jules (Samuel Jackson) instantly recognizes as revelatory and uses to slowly change his life. As an alchemical process, true transformation takes time and the repeated diminution of ego. The viewer instinctively does not trust facile change and longs for films in which suffering and courage conspire to create portraits of change that can inspire and reassure.

In this film, transformation begins in the lives of several of its main characters, most notably Mildred, the anguished and enraged mother, and Dixon, the racist deputy. They are true opposites when the film begins and, as such, become necessary to one another’s journeys of individuation. Yet a number of lives in this film show evidence of genuine change, this is yet more testimony to the depth of director Martin McDonagh’s screenplay and direction.


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 in this psychic state generates the chain of events that engender her gain in consciousness.

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.

Professional headshot of Dominic Callahan Ph.D.

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.


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As a Not-For-Profit organization we exist because of the generosity of our friends, volunteers and donors. None of the work that we do would be possible without you.