Martin McDonagh’s much praised take on small town Americana conflict commences with shots of the eponymous, dilapidated billboards in mist set to operatic aria. There’s enough pathos in that scene and & McDormand’s drawn features to justify the ticket price. McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, the grieving, angry mother of daughter Angela who was raped and murdered by the billboards. She rents these to send a message of shame to the local police, specifically chief Willoughby, played with uncharacteristic restraint by Woody Harrelson. In her use of public communication as an act of resistance, I was reminded of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. This doesn’t play out as bleakly, but in grief driving a desperate act of homemade broadcast, it recalls the need of the Quangels to make a stand, because they have nothing else.
And from this premise we think we know how such a movie might play out – plucky mother gets case escalated and killer is discovered. But one of the strengths of Three Billboards is that it continually toys with, and subverts our expectations. Chief Willoughby, dying from cancer, is a largely sympathetic character, while McDormand is frequently unsympathetic as she exacts her rage. And thrown into this mix is racist, violent hick cop Dixon. It’s all played with a mixture of grit and humour, and no-one does sardonic side-eye quite like McDormand.
It’s difficult to elaborate more without going into spoiler territory, but the movie resonates with several current concerns. What is a permitted form of protest? The town repeatedly tell Mildred they all sympathise with her, but this is not the way to act. In that we have echoes of white America’s reaction to movements such as Black Lives Matter and Take a Knee. You can have our sympathy as long as you keep quiet. It also speaks to Hannah Arendt’s position on power and violence, that violence appears when power is in jeopardy.
But I wonder if this marks the first in a new sub-genre we’ll see emerging over the next few years, one which is concerned with America healing itself. Let’s call it American Redemption. And in that I felt uncomfortable. The forgiveness arrives too contritely, there is an excess of ‘on both sides’ in this narrative to truly reflect the state of America. It’s too soon.