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?
12 thoughts on “Three Billboards Outside Miami, Florida: how America turned into Mildred Hayes”
Very powerful thanks Mike
Thanks for your post. It is thoughtful and thought provoking. As an American, I can say that this time feels different. Youth have grown way too fast as a result of living in such an unsafe environment. They have been schooled in divisive politics. As survivors their testimony is powerful. This time, I have hope that it is just another news cycle.
We can only hope! BTW, it was great to meet you face-to-face on the weekend.
Just realised that I omitted the “not” in “not just another news cycle.” But I think you knew what I meant. Yeah, it was a great day on Saturday and good to finally meet you too.
An incredible reflection, thank you. Is the final question to be asked of their whole leadership and system of governance? Certainly, Trump needs to show stronger leadership in this area but didn’t Obama have a fair crack at it without getting too far? There has to be more than any system can do than being driven by the financial support of the gun lobby. That’s what this conversation appears to return to every time it raises it’s head in the States…money is power! Mildred is right, it’s not good enough to say that there isn’t much more we can do.
Yes, it’s not all down to Donald Trump. And given his comments about 2nd Amendment rights on the campaign trail, he has no interest in restricting access to guns. Targeting members of congress and how much they receive in donations from the NRA is a good first step.
This time I don’t think the problem is just Trump or even the NRA. It’s the large numbers of Americans out there who believe it’s their right to own a gun. It’s a very very hard thing to convince people to give up something they perceive to be a right. There are many (not all, but enough) people who feel they need powerful weapons to protect themselves if their government turns against them. And what will convince them that their government is turning against them? When they start suggesting they might limit their access to weapons!! They will interpret even moderate restrictions as the beginning of a larger scheme to control them (think how they responded to Medicare).
It is no easy thing for a government to tackle because there will almost certainly be serious civil unrest. There are many Americans who want gun control but there are also a large number who will be quite literally be willing to fight for their “right” to bear arms.
That is confusing. The same gun owners are the same ones who love their military yes? Maybe they think they’ll be badass like the military? They really think they can outfight professional soldiers?
Why can’t they leave the assault weapons at the shooting range only and have these places with armed guards? I suppose big egos are too common in America. In Taiwan there is a airsoft culture. Although the guns look absolutely real (obviously part of the appeal), there does not seem to be many incidences of irresponsible shooting. And you can actually shoot each other because they are like paintballs. They are appealing but I would only want to do something like that a few times a year as an occasional amusement and not have to own an actual gun
Hi Mike, I do understand that Donald Trump is the current President, but what did Obama do about it when he was President & he had control of the two houses for two years?? Trump has had less time than Obama to work though the issues.
Yes, of course something needs to be done but it would appear that some lives are also more worthy of saving than others. Have you addressed the abortion issues which could save millions of more lives?? Perhaps that is another story but just as important to the defenseless unborn child??
You’re nothing if not predictable. 17 dead kids in Florida and an emerging social movement calling for gun control, and you wanna grouse about Obama.
That’s right Mike. Because judging by your own standards, this & many more attacks would not have occurred if Obama had have done something about gun control & now you blame Trump. “How come, Donald J Trump?”
By the way, I am not “nothing”. I am a person made in the image of God just like you & yes both of us are very predictable in many areas of our lives with obvious different points of view.
Peace to you my friend
“Peace to you, my friend”? I don’t consider you a friend. I unfriended you on Facebook because of your continually negative attitude. Every single comment was carping or whining about whatever I posted. Now I discover you’ve followed me over to my blog and continued with the constant criticism. I’m willing to accept disagreement or debate, but relentless criticism, judgmentalism and moaning is too much to put up with. Please leave me alone on all forms of social media.