Frances McDormand took the Best Actress Award at the 2018 Academy Awards for her role as the grieving Mildred Hayes, so contributor David Chan takes a deep dive into the themes raised in Three Billboards, Outside Ebbing Missouri.
An honest portrait of suffering
Towards the end of the film, Three Billboards presents us with a maxim:
“Anger begets greater anger”
This quote encapsulates the heart of the film.
The words are spoken to Mildred Hayes, the central character of Three Billboards. Her daughter raped and murdered, Mildred’s grief manifests as rage at injustice and the failures of the local police to offer any resolution. Upon three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri—in black text on a blood-red background—she challenges the inaction of the local police chief:
- RAPED WHILE DYING
- AND STILL NO ARRESTS?
- HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
How do we respond to suffering and pain? Three Billboards explores this question, not only through the defiant actions of Mildred, but also through the ramifications of her actions upon everyone else affected by those actions. The impact of her billboards do not end with Chief Willoughby, but send waves across the townsfolk; Mildred’s tragedy upends the lives of friends and family caught in her wake. Anger begets greater anger.
And while Mildred’s anger is literally writ large upon the eponymous three billboards, the film’s portrayal of sorrow and hurt are at once subtle and recognisable. We meet characters “where they are at” midway through their pre-existing and complex pain. And so we empathise with their actions, even as their (sometimes brutal) behaviour brings pain to themselves and those around them, we can understand and, for the most part (more on that later), desperately want them to find relief and resolution.
How do we respond to suffering and pain? Three Billboards explores this question, not only through the defiant actions of Mildred, but also through the ramifications of her actions upon everyone else affected by those actions.
Can any action really be “too far” for a mother seeking justice in the face of senseless brutality?
Can we make hope and joy last amidst the unrelenting decline of terminal illness?
Can one small deed forgive a lifetime of bigotry and abusive behaviour?
Three Billboards has been nominated for seven Oscar including best picture, best original screenplay, best actress (Frances McDormand as Mildred) and two best-supporting actor roles (the central police officers – Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby, and Sam Rockwell’s Dixon). It earns these nominations by showing the full range of suffering—from searing drama to dark comedy; authentically messy.
The characters of Three Billboards are cyphers, but complex in their internal struggles and motivations. Director Martin McDonagh is known for weaving intricate narratives punctuated by swearing and sucker punch plot turns. Where his previous works (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) deployed those skills in service of pulp-narrative romps, here those rapidly unfolding circumstances coalesce into a study of human drama (swearing and violence intact; let the reader understand). Three Billboards paints complex characters full of greyness and emotion and sets them in motion one against another. The resultant rawness of these relationships forgive any plot contrivances to get there. You will cry and laugh; often at the same time.
“Moving on” from suffering
But amidst these emotions, the difficulties the film raises remain ultimately unresolved. Indeed, the film is resolute in its irresolution. On the one hand, anger begets greater anger; on the other hand, justice demands punishment for the crime. It is Mildred’s paradox—her actions are self-destructive but the horror is real.
The life philosophy of Three Billboards is not a full stop but an ellipse; the final interchange is left open. The scene is dream-like—an afternoon drive through sun-speckled woods (brief spoiler):
“Are you sure about killing this guy?”
“Not really… “
“…I guess we can decide along the way”
After all, what can you do to resolve Mildred’s paradox but just keep driving; we’ll take it when we get there. The bittersweet song that carries the scene begs the question:
Some look like they’ll cry forever — tell me what their laughter means?
These moments in Three Billboards are authentically brilliant. Amidst searing existential anguish, we all desire the relief of small mercies and welcome the laughter; a chance to exhale amidst the tension and tears.
And so, in other scenes, it is laughter that intentionally undercuts any risk of overwrought drama. It’s a welcome emotional relief to be sure, but it speaks also to the folly of taking things too seriously amidst ultimately arbitrary circumstances. It feels true to life insofar as sometimes cracking a joke is all that’s left. Take the aforementioned maxim “anger begets anger”—profound and poignant in one scene, fatuous and frivolous in the next:
“Did you really tell him ‘anger begets greater anger?’”
“Yes!… I read it on a bookmark?”
These moments in Three Billboards are authentically brilliant. Amidst searing existential anguish, we all desire the relief of small mercies and welcome the laughter; a chance to exhale amidst the tension and tears. If suffering is arbitrary and justice is an illusion, sometimes the best you can do is laugh at the absurdity of your anger… all that remains is to let it go. Like the tiny potted plants that Mildred installs beneath the three yawning billboards; all that remains against gross injustice and horror is but a fragile beauty.
And you hope that that’s enough.
An honest portrait of real suffering
It was sobering to discover that the fiction of Three Billboards echoes real-life events. In 1991, mother-of-two Kathy Page, was raped and killed. Her father, James, has been putting up billboards along the interstate ever since. For twenty years his personal shouts for justice against local law enforcement have changed nothing. Here, against real people in real pain, some laughs and a sweet song suddenly become utterly inadequate. I’d be scared to ask James whether he saw the “beauty” of Three Billboards.
This problem of suffering is a question that every Christian must ask themselves – “if God was all loving and all powerful, why is there suffering in the world?” And although intellectual defences can be made, their abstract “apologetics” and “theodicies” often feel impotent against the horrors of true evil, where brutal rage and all-consuming grief meet.
Compared to Three Billboards, how then does the Bible speak to this problem of suffering?
The portrayal of suffering in the Bible is more honest, more direct and raw. It follows this darkness to the depths of suffering without flinching. Where Three Billboards can only avert its gaze, the Bible stares the darkness full in the face, pleading with God to answer for his seeming inaction. “How Lord, O Lord?” is the Bible’s billboard question.
The portrayal of suffering in the Bible is more honest, more direct and raw.
The Bible never shies away from showing suffering and pain for exactly what it is, in all its cruelty and brutality. Sometimes, as in the case of Psalm 88, darkness is seemingly all that remains:
O LORD, why do you reject me, and pay no attention to me?
I am oppressed and have been on the verge of death since my youth.
I have been subjected to your horrors and am numb with pain.
Your anger overwhelms me; your terrors destroy me.
They surround me like water all day long; they join forces and encircle me.
You cause my friends and neighbours to keep their distance;
those who know me leave me alone in the darkness.
Psalm 88:14-18 (NET)
I doubt they’ll ever print Psalm 88 on a bookmark.
The impossibility of “moving on”
As it happens, the “bookmark maxim” of Three Billboards is taken from a longer quote:
“Anger begets more anger, and forgiveness and love lead to more forgiveness and love.”
Three Billboards never quotes the second half. I wonder if saying it out loud exposes how shallow it might sound in the face of the gross injustice faced by Mildred. Flowers beneath a billboard might seem poetic, but get too close and you recognise how insufficient and disingenuous such small mercies are against the face of genuine injustice. Especially when, after all, the characters in Three Billboards demonstrate that the sources of their suffering often stem not from outside, but from within. The residents of Ebbing self-sabotage and destroy. They are bitter, bigoted, and scared; they are all culpable for the suffering of others. The “forgiveness and love” they can bring themselves simply isn’t enough, and we are not even convinced they are deserving.
For many critics, Three Billboards’ redemptive arc for this character is simply too cheap; his redemption is unearned.
Witness the real-world backlash against one character, Sam Rockwell’s racist cop. For many critics, Three Billboards’ redemptive arc for this character is simply too cheap; his redemption is unearned. The portrayal is especially galling against the backdrop of the real-world racial sensitivities of the film’s Midwest setting. When evil is real, redemption cannot be cheap.
It comes back to the paradox that Three Billboards acknowledges: Anger begets greater anger and forgiveness and love lead to more forgiveness and love. Yet the horror and suffering of evil demand true justice. Costly suffering needs costly justice. Letting go and moving on is not enough.
Where then can we turn?
The God who Suffers
In the Bible, the answer is Jesus. Not just an intellectual answer. Not just a theological solution. But in a God that bleeds.
We cry out for justice – “why doesn’t God do something about the suffering in the world?” And in Jesus God replies: “I have.”
The Christian faith uniquely addresses both sides of the Three Billboards paradox. At the cross of Christ, God’s justice and love meet. Our demands for real justice are poured out upon Jesus; and in Jesus’ perfect atonement we find the fullness of love and forgiveness once and for all. The impossible paradox can be broken and subverted – not just as a clever idea, but often in the very lives of all those who have suffered the horrors of real injustice. As one pastor has observed, “it is an exaggeration to say that no one finds God unless suffering comes into their lives, but it is not a big one.”
Midway through the film while tending her potter flowers Mildred is visited by an innocent deer. Her words, spoken in confidence, expose the inner cry of her suffering:
“Still no arrests. How come I wonder? Cos there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it dun matter what we do to each other?…
… I hope not.”
 https://www.bustle.com/p/is-three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri-a-true-story-the-new-drama-will-break-your-heart-3264861 Also see life imitating art in the injustices of London’s Grenfell Fires and Florida’s recent high school shooting: https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2018/feb/21/when-real-life-protest-imitates-art-from-three-billboards-to-father-ted
 Attributed to Bhagavan Mahavira, the twenty-fourth and final saviour and spiritual teacher of the dharma in the Indian Jainism religion.
 A telling real-world example from around the time of Three Billboards release is found in Rachael Denhollander moving testimony against her former Team USA gymnastics doctor who sexually molested her 16 years earlier. Speaking directly to her abuser she says: “If you have read the Bible you carry you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way… Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/incredible-testimony-former-gymnast-confronts-sexual-abuser-court/
 Tim Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, p. 5.