In Martin McDonagh’s hugely successful film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a grieving mother, frustrated by police inaction in solving her daughter’s murder, erects three signs goading the local police chief to do something.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is numb with grief. Her face is set like stone. Her manner is flinty and gruff. She’s survived a violent marriage, the violent death of a child, and now she’s surviving a sluggish police investigation. She won’t take any more garbage from anyone.
The focus of her billboard rage, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a more sympathetic character than you first expect. After the signs go up and start causing a stir around the fictional town of Ebbing, Willoughby calls on Mildred and tries to explain the reason Angela’s murder and rape hasn’t been solved. There’s no evidence. There’s no witnesses, no DNA matches, no suspects, no leads.
“Right now there ain’t too much more we could do,” he laments.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is all about unfocused grief. Mildred has no one to blame for her daughter’s death and therefore nowhere to focus her grief and her anger. So she’s angry at everyone. The billboards are the only tangible outlet for that anger.
In one touching scene, Mildred squats by the billboards and starts platting flowers, as if those the huge orange signs are a kind of grave or memorial to Angela. At that moment a beautiful wild dear crosses the field and stands near her. Mildred softens.
Hey baby… Yup, still no arrests. How come I wonder? ‘Cause there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty, and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other? I hope not. How come you came up here out of nowhere lookin’ so pretty? You ain’t trynta make me believe in reincarnation or somethin’ are ya? ‘Cause you’re pretty but you ain’t her… She got killed. Now she’s dead forever. I do thank you for comin’ though.
It’s a moment of grace in an otherwise largely graceless film. And Mildred so desperately needs grace.
Later, when someone sets the billboards alight to destroy them, Mildred works desperately and tirelessly to save them. Without the billboards where is her grief and her fury to go?
This week, after the most recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, an activist group erected three mobile billboards outside Senator Marco Rubio’s office in Miami.
“Slaughtered in school.”
“And still no gun control?”
“How come, Marco Rubio?”
I look at pictures of those signs and see the same palpable frustration, grief and anger I see in Mildred Hayes. Where else can we focus our pain?
One young woman, Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Parkland massacre, focused her pain by delivering a scorching address to an anti-gun rally in Fort Lauderdale, making an impassioned appeal to President Donald Trump and lawmakers to tighten gun restrictions. Her anger, frustration and grief practically ekes through the screen.
It’s the same numbed anger that has led to a number of protests being launched across the USA. Teachers are considering a nationwide strike until congress passes tighter gun controls.
On March 24, the March for Our Lives will descend on Washington DC, with other such marches scheduled across the country, similar to the Women’s March last year. It will be an opportunity for Americans to express their frustration with the inaction on trying to end gun violence and mass shootings in schools.
There’s no such place as Ebbing, Missouri. Writer-director, Martin McDonagh set his film in the dead center of the USA as a metaphor for the country’s struggles with injustice, racism and hatred. I guess the three mobile billboards in Miami are a metaphor too, a symbol of the wellspring of frustration, numbness and pain leeching out of every part of America right now.
When Chief Willoughby tells Mildred Hayes, “there ain’t too much more we could do,” she refuses to accept it. She has no sympathy for him. Her heart is too full of sorrow to find any room to feel sorry for him.
I wonder if the USA is finally at the same point as Mildred Hayes. I wonder if the American heart is so wracked by anguish at all the senseless killing they aren’t going to take the inaction any more. No more “thoughts and prayers” from lawmakers. They have no capacity to feel sorry for politicians. They want action.
And still no gun control?
How come, Donald J Trump?